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The role of mental health and the responsibility of the author in young adult fiction

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The role of mental health and the responsibility of the author in young adult fiction

I recently attended a workshop hosted by Tom Harris, author of The Amber Room, The Amber Antidote and the forthcoming Wings, Wands and Weird Worlds series, and Hannah Morton, ambassador for Time To Change campaign which took place on Wednesday 7th June at The Spring, Havant. Both Tom and Hannah work for The University of Portsmouth’s Student Union and as such have become increasingly aware of the importance of the student voice for everything. This led them to feeling it necessary to address issues surrounding mental health in literature for young people. As a researcher at the University’s School of Education and Childhood studies, I am also very aware of the importance of this and especially the role it plays in the protection of mental health and wellbeing of children and young people.

This translates to the use of language for the YA author. To quote Hannah’s opening slide: “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.” As someone who is researching the development of mental health from the Victorian era to the present day, I find this both fascinating and alarming. Books being written that begin to deal with the turmoil of mental health in childhood and education are becoming ever more prevalent and popular in modern young adult literature but do they deal with the issues sensitively and sympathetically? There are certainly many authors that do but I still feel there are several examples of authors who do not necessarily focus on mental health and wellbeing that can carelessly use language that can cause internalisations that have a serious impact on children’s and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. I am not going to ‘name and shame’ as it were, but a few examples are as follows:

“You’re mental”

“Cheer up, it might never happen,”

“I need my room to be clean, I’m so OCD,”

“Why do you look so depressed, have you forgotten how to smile?”

As expressed by Tom and Hannah, I think it is really important to bear in mind the way words and language are used to convey certain ideologies and expressions. Terminology is especially important as we try to work towards greater acceptance and equality in this world. Children may, for example, come across terminology used by authors that they wouldn’t necessarily encounter and then translate this in to their own everyday use of language thinking this is OK, when in fact, it is exacerbating the situation of inappropriate use of language, this in turn could impact the reader and/or their peers in terms of their self-perception, confidence and overall wellbeing. The initiation of unhealthy thought processes and responses could be triggered by simply not feeling enough, when that was not necessarily intended. For example, “you’re so gay,” used in a negative connotation, or, “You’re far too sensitive,” such seemingly innocent phrases have a plethora of connotations that indicate to the young person that there is something “wrong” with them and that they will be judged for this.

What is interesting is that many of these phrases were originally coined as medical terminology; for example, idiot, imbecile and lunatic were used during the late 1800s to describe people expressing particular behavioural traits. The word spastic was first used in a medical context to describe people with the condition, cereberal palsy. It was only later that these words were adopted as insults as language evolved, as its nature. For that reason, it is essential to ensure that we, as authors, evolve with it so that our use of language parallels the generation(s) that we are writing for. Some suggestions for swapping some of the following expressions and phrases to more ‘mental health promoting’ ones could be as follows:

“s/he was feeling down/sad/upset” instead of depressed.

“Oh that’s alarming!” instead of mental/crazy

“S/he is a psycho,” instead say, “this person suffers with [the illness].” Or, “s/he has been diagnosed with [the condition].

“You’re so bi-polar,” or, “s/he’s got such a split personality,” or, “s/he’s such a moody . . .” these phrases should not be used to describe someone who is indecisive, of two minds or experiencing severe mood swings. If someone you know is exhibiting such symptoms, do not be off with them, instead ask them, “Are you OK?” You may perceive them as being ‘moody’ or ‘off’ towards you when they are in fact experiencing severe inner turmoil and require support or someone to ‘lend an ear’ to listen.

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