Mental Health in Young Adult Fiction and Life
Guest Blog Post
by Rebecca Laffar-Smith
~ This October, YA science fiction and fantasy author Rebecca Laffar-Smith will be touring libraries in Western Australia to help raise awareness of youth mental health crises. Today she joins us via a guest blog post. Welcome, Rebecca! ~
First, I want to start by saying, “Greetings!” to you wondering readers, and “Thank you!” to Emma for giving me a place to share my voice, and hopefully share something real and resonant with you today. I wanted to do that, because I’m going to be using the word “I” in what I write, and I wanted to start by making it very clear that the person writing this isn’t this blog’s fabulous creator. It is, in fact, another wonderfully neurodiverse creative and novelist who is passionate about representation, neurodiversity, and fostering belonging.
I also want to create a little pause between the start of this post and the guts of it because what I’m going to write about can be a sensitive topic. I want you to know yourself enough to know if you’re in a healthy space to consider this topic. It’s okay to say, “I’m feeling a bit rough today” or “I’m not ready to face this”. Protecting your own mental health and diverse needs is vital and I respect you for doing that. To be clear: today I’ll be writing about mental health, mental illness, neurodiversity, acceptance, rejection, belonging, betrayal, depression, and yes, the darkest potential consequences of that state.
If you’re ready, I’ll begin.
When I was fifteen, I almost killed myself.
I did warn you. I promise that’s as gritty as I’ll get. But I want to confront that statement because the older I get the more heartbroken I am about that teenage self who reached that point.
Young Adult Mental Health
…So many teenagers, even today, are facing these challenges alone. They’re feeling broken or out of place… And to those teenagers I want to shout, “You are NOT alone!”
You see, I didn’t know it at the time, but I was struggling with a mental health challenge. It would take fifteen years of “getting help” before someone would name it and give me the tools to acknowledge it, face it, and function with it.
I also didn’t know it at the time, but I wasn’t alone in these kinds of struggles. In an average high school classroom, four students are facing serious mental health challenges, two may be considering suicide. In fact, 75% of mental health conditions begin before the age of twenty-five. And yet teen and young adult mental health is seriously under-addressed, under-diagnosed, and largely ignored.
What breaks my heart is that so many teenagers, even today, are facing these challenges alone. They’re feeling broken or out of place. They’re feeling like they don’t fit. They’re feeling that something about them is fundamentally wrong. And to those teenagers, I want to shout, “You are NOT alone!”
We’re finally beginning to see more and more representation, honesty, truth, and yes realness, in fiction and in art.
While my heart breaks, I’m also kind of excited because I think we’re at a transitional point in society’s willingness to let this remain hidden. More and more we’re seeing neurodiversity, disability, and mental health, in adults and teens, appearing in mainstream media. We’re also seeing schools learning to adapt to individual learning difference. We’re seeing movies and TV shows giving more nuanced portrayals. We’re seeing books show the depths and the wonders that arise when we acknowledge the challenges we’re facing in this arena.
We’re finally beginning to see more and more representation, honesty, truth, and yes realness, in fiction and in art. We’re beginning to see it in the arena where individual voice is first heard and where creatives challenge people to think more deeply, to look more critically, to question their own bias and beliefs. We’re beginning to see it in the arena where we invite others to take a walk in our shoes and see our similarities, to see our humanity, rather than our disorder or disease.
…It’s so vital that teenagers and young adults are given access to books that show them these awkward and uncertain people discovering self.
It takes a lot of courage for artists, writers included, to let in these confronting divergencies. Even those of us living with them are still tethered by years of stigma and rejection. As much as we’re trying to embrace a society that is open and feels free to talk about mental illness, there’s still a great deal of taboo about the subject. It’s perceived as “not safe” to talk about. Which of course makes it risky to write about. And I don’t know about you, but I want to write books people want to read, and writing risky means risking reader rejection.
It also takes courage, and distance, to be able to see over the wall of darkness and despair that can rise when we’re living in that space. There’s no way I could have written my fifteen-year-old self’s truth when I was fifteen because it’s only with the hindsight of many years since that I can see that self in an enlightened way.
It took years to have the courage to put that self on a page where others could see her. That teenage self, in fact I suspect almost every teenage self, is a bit raw and uncertain. Our teen years are unpolished and unpredictable. We’re only just beginning to discover our authentic, individual selves.
I think this is where books can be so powerful. I think it’s also why it’s so vital that teenagers and young adults are given access to books that show them these awkward and uncertain people discovering self. I think it’s also a big part of why so many adults, myself included, still love to read young adult fiction. Because some days we’re still feeling raw and uncertain. We’re still discovering ourselves, each and every day. Life is like that.
Books show us into the worlds of others, and in others we learn to see so much of ourselves.
As creatives, sharing our stories, our truths, and our real selves can lift our creations into wonderment. Representation matters so much because we’re prone to seeing only ourselves or our immediate environment. It can be hard to empathise, to understand, or to live the experience of others. And it can be hard feeling like others cannot empathise with or understand us.
We talk about diversity. We talk about disability. We talk about mental illness. And a lot of the time these differences can feel disconnecting. Books show us into the worlds of others, and in others we learn to see so much of ourselves. Because, even in our differences we converge in a shared experience. We are, ultimately, all experiencing an uncertain life, together.
Which brings us full circle back to this phrase, “You are not alone”.
Whatever you’re experiencing, there is help, there is understanding, there is empathy. Courage is in asking for it. For seeking it. Because sadly, so many of us are submerged in our own struggles that we might fail to see yours unless you’re willing to share it.
Rebecca Laffar-Smith lives with her young adult children and their service animal pup. She also lives with chronic pain and mental illness. Those lived experiences drive her to write young adult sci-fi and fantasy novels that star diverse characters. On the surface, her latest novel, Spirit Talker, is about a teenager who sees ghosts, but underneath is a raw look at mental health, self-acceptance, self-advocacy, belonging, and belief. As a presenter and coach, Rebecca loves to write and speak about the challenges of living with disability. She also loves to chat about all things writing-related! Her books and talks inspire people to experience possibility and discover wonder. Check out her TEDx Talk.
Need support or information around depression and anxiety for yourself, a friend, or family member? Please get immediate support to contact your National crisis and helplines. In Australia, these include the free services of Beyond Blue, Lifeline, and more.