The past year has put mental health in the spotlight. According to Mental Health America, in 2020, screenings for anxiety and depression increased by 93 and 62 percent respectively.
Children were heavily affected; from January to September 2020, 77,470 children aged 11-17 reported suicidal thoughts–27,980 LGBTQ children among them.
The mental health system doesn’t always treat people equally. In “The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health,” Rheeda Walker presents strategies for confronting racial bias in healthcare, spotting potential mental illness and advocating for care.
How can we protect our mental health at a stressful time?
Therapy can help. Psychology Today offers a finding tool for various professionals, from therapists to support groups. Navigating mental health coverage can be daunting. Among other resources, Mentalhealth.gov offers a consumer guide to answer frequently asked insurance questions.
Mindfulness is another tactic. For example, the “54321” grounding technique suggests naming five things you can see, four things you can touch or feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Kids and adults can appreciate the calming strategies in books like Susan Verde’s “I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness.”
Books can offer advice. For instance, Bessel Van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score“ uses patient stories and compassionate advice to examine how trauma affects the body as well as the brain, emphasizing that with treatment, memories of trauma can coexist with the present without overwhelming it.
Books can also just make us feel like we’re not alone. Memoirs and fiction with well-rounded characters navigating similar situations can be comforting.
For adults, Adam Haslett’s short story collection “You Are Not a Stranger Here“ and novel “Imagine Me Gone“ vividly and tenderly explore the intricacies of mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, as well as its effect on family members.
Matt Haig’s memoir “Reasons to Stay Alive“ lyrically and accessibly chronicles his experience with depression, mixing candor and hope.
For kids and teens, a growing body of books features diverse characters navigating a variety of mental health challenges as well as the upheaval of being a kid or teen altogether. Here are a few.
Drawing on his own experience, Fred Aceves’ “The New David Espinoza” depicts a boy grappling with body dysmorphia and steroid abuse. Struggling with his father’s authority, grieving his mother’s death, and tired of being mocked for being skinny, David resolves to prove to everyone that he’s stronger than they think. But is his steroid addiction stronger than he is?
In Rebecca Stead’s “The List of Things that Will Not Change,” 12-year-old Bea keeps a list to help manage her anxiety. At the top of the list is that her parents will always love her, even if they’re divorced. When her dad announces that he and his boyfriend are getting married, Bea is thrilled–but a new family comes with unexpected changes. Bea’s compassionate therapist gives her strategies to cope with her anxiety and anger.
Hanna Alkaf’s historical fiction adventure “The Weight of Our Sky“ is set against the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur. Sixteen-year-old Melati is separated from her mother in the turmoil. To fight her way back, she must reckon with her obsessive-compulsive disorder–which she sees as a djinn in her brain, who can only be appeased by counting and tapping rituals.
“Home Home“ by Lisa Allen-Agostini stars a Trinidadian teen who’s sent to live with her aunt and her aunt’s partner in Canada after a major depressive episode lands her in the hospital. Though Kayla confronts tough topics–panic attacks, homesickness, homophobia and her mother’s emotional distance–love and support from Aunt Jillian, her partner Julie, and the friends she makes in Canada create a warm, hopeful read.
Because mental illness affects family life too, books that explore the relationship between parents and children can also offer comfort, hope and perspective. For children and teens, a parent’s mental illness may be particularly difficult to process. Books like these can help readers see that they’re not alone.
“The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling“ by Wai Chim brings readers into the secret that Anna Chiu keeps from everyone else: While Anna tries to balance middling grades, high expectations, working in her father’s restaurant and caring for her siblings, her mother has been in bed for days. And when she finally gets up, she’s changed in a terrifying way. The family’s Asian Australian heritage and the microaggressions they experience give a complex, complicated perspective on mental health treatment. The portrayal of psychosis is stark but hopeful; a romance adds intrigue.
“The Science of Breakable Things” by Tae Keller focuses on the relationship between Natalie and her botanist mother, who struggles with depression. When Natalie enters an egg-drop science contest, she imagines that winning the $500 prize will enable her to take her mother to see the Cobalt Blue Orchid her mother had been studying. If her mother remembers that the Cobalt Blue Orchid can withstand anything, maybe she’ll realize she can too. Realistic friendships and Natalie’s introduction to her father’s Korean heritage round out the plot.
Parenting a child who has a mental illness comes with its own challenges. In David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through His Son’s Addiction,” Sheff finds his family falling apart as his son Nic’s crystal meth addiction spirals out of control, and he exhausts a multitude of avenues in his efforts to help Nic. Nic Sheff’s memoir, “Tweak,” offers a companion narrative that’s raw and ultimately hopeful.
Deborah Vlock’s “Parenting Children with Mental Health Challenges“ draws on the author’s own experience as well as doctors’ perspectives to provide sympathetic tips, action items and encouragement to parents of children with mental health difficulties.
“Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family“ by Robert Kolker chronicles the experiences of the Galvins: a family with 12 children, six of whom have schizophrenia. Incorporating the science and history of schizophrenia as well as its effect on the Galvins, Kolker relates a tale of mental illness, family ties and questionable medical ethics.
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