Guest author blog: Holly Bourne on Five Rules for Writing about Mental Health in YA books


I want teen readers to be able to go into a bookstore and pick up something that reflects their experience. Considering one in ten young people experience mental health issues before the age of 15, books discussing these issues need to be on the shelves. But, if you’re going to ‘go there’ as an author, it’s vital you get it right.

I’ve been working at youth charity website for five years, and used a lot of my day-job knowledge in my new book about OCD and relapse. Here are the golden rules I followed whilst writing Am I Normal Yet?

Remember *everyone* has mental health
Nobody is just a mental health condition. Nobody is just a self-harmer, or a depressive. They are PEOPLE who happen to have mental health issues. And, like physical health, everyone has a mental health too. Not just your main character – but every character in every book should be having good days/bad days – goods patches/bad patches.

Mental illness is not just an abstract ‘thing’ that happens to people
…it’s often a response to a number of different mitigating circumstances. It’s not always as simple as DNA or one singular traumatic event. There’s is a big move away from mental health being seen as isolated ‘illnesses’ with a list of ‘symptoms’ towards a more socio-economic, environmental and biological model. The World Health Organisations cites poverty and gender equality as some of the biggest risks to mental well-being. That’s why I wanted Am I Normal Yet? to ultimately be a book about feminism, rather than a book about mental health.

Be wary of triggers
An author should always put the well-being of a potentially-vulnerable reader over their own writerly ego. This means being exceedingly careful when dealing with triggering topics such as suicide, self-harm and eating disorders. Be mindful that readers experiencing these things are likely to hunt down books about them like a homing missile. My tip is always – focus on feelings rather than actions. You don’t want to do more harm than good. And particularly avoid detailed descriptions of self-harm or suicide methods, and no mention of weight or calories when discussing disordered eating.

Provide ‘some’ hope
It’s a tricky balance. Mental illness doesn’t always have a fairytale ending, and it’s important to be true to that. However a little bit of hope can go a long way. Yes, it’s unrealistic to pretend that all mental health blips can be mended with some counselling or anti-depressants. But try to give readers something – an understanding friend, a coping mechanism that works for them, the knowledge that they’re not alone…

Don’t encourage the idea that true love mends mental illness
“I had schizophrenia but then I got a really great boyfriend and never had schizophrenia ever again” said NOBODY EVER. Yes, having caring, supportive partners is *nice* when in the grips of mental anguish. No, it doesn’t mend you.

©Holly Bourne

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