We’re discussing mental health in today’s guest post from Nora Shalaway Carpenter, who used her own experiences to craft an #ownvoices narrative about mental health in her debut YA novel The Edge of Anything, which is out now.
The Edge of Anything tells the dual narrative of two teenagers—one a shy photographer unknowingly suffering a mental health crisis, the other a popular volleyball star with her own devastating secret—and the unexpected friendship that saves them both.
People have asked why I included a character with a major mental health concern, and—more importantly—how I managed to do so authentically, and the answer is quite simple: this is very much an #ownvoices novel. Like Len, I too suffered from an undiagnosed mental health crisis at one horrible point in my life. I craved a book like this during that time, one that not only offered hope in a situation that seemed completely devoid of the stuff, but also reflected the reality that mental health sufferers aren’t some kind of other alien beings, as we are often made to feel. Rather, we are regular, big-hearted people whose brains just happen to be working against us.
The book stars teenagers because I’m a young adult author, but also because teenagers are one of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to mental health. Sadly, according to recent statistics, one out of every five teenagers suffer from at least one diagnosed mental health disorder per year.[i] The National Institute of Mental Health’s website explains that, according to diagnostic interview data, “49.5% of adolescents” struggled with some kind of mental disorder in the early 2000s[ii], and the rate of depression in adolescents aged 12-17 has increased 63 percent since 2013[iii]. What’s more, seven-in-ten teens see anxiety and depression as “major problems among their peers.”[iv] When I think about how difficult it was for me, as an adult with health care and a supportive spouse, to figure out what was happening and find a health care specialist who understood what I was going through, the thought of undergoing a similar experience as a teen is devastating.
Unfortunately, there are still a plethora of books that portray mental health sufferers as one-dimensional, deeply disturbed caricatures. As people who will never live productive, happy, and fulfilled lives and who are destined to exist forever on society’s fringes. As people who aren’t “normal.” Aside from their horrendous inaccuracy, such representations can cause readers to internalize those harmful and untrue ideas. Sufferers can begin self-loathing instead of seeking help, and would-be empathizers don’t learn how to relate.
This is why #ownvoices mental health representation is critically important. #Ownvoices mental health characters display nuance and complexity that allows them to be seen by other characters as much more than their affliction, and—by proxy—allows suffering readers to feel seen as their whole, unique selves as well. Additionally, when sufferers read a story by someone whose struggle mirrors their own and yet achieves success in the form of publishing books, that in itself offers hope.
More and more #ownvoices mental health books are releasing, and the gifts they offer readers are immense. Rocky Callen’s A Breathe Too Late is an excellent choice (Henry Holt, April 2020). Or, if fantasy is more your jam, check out Sasha Laurens’ A Wicked Magic (Razorbill, July 2020). Please, read #ownvoices mental health books. Give them to your students, to your children, to people who suffer, and—just as importantly—to people who don’t. Sure, such books will enrich readers lives’ by offering views into the vulnerable, authentic inner landscapes of people different from them. But the real richness comes in the discovery of just the opposite—that, despite how differently our brains might work, despite how unfamiliar another’s behavior might feel, we are more similar to one another than most of us can even begin to imagine.
Len is a loner teen photographer haunted by a past that’s stagnated her work and left her terrified she’s losing her mind. Sage is a high school volleyball star desperate to find a way around her sudden medical disqualification. Both girls need college scholarships. After a chance encounter, the two develop an unlikely friendship that enables them to begin facing their inner demons.
But both Len and Sage are keeping secrets that, left hidden, could cost them everything, maybe even their lives.
Set in the North Carolina mountains, this gorgeous #ownvoices novel explores how friendship can help us find ourselves and the goodness in life, even when everything feels broken.
“Hand to fans of John Green immediately.” Booklist
A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, Nora Shalaway Carpenter is the author of the YA contemporary novel, THE EDGE OF ANYTHING (Running Press Teen), contributing editor of the forthcoming YA anthology RURAL VOICES: 15 Authors Challenge Assumptions About Small-Town America (Candlewick, October 13, 2020), and author of the picture book YOGA FROG (Running Press, out now). Originally from rural West Virginia, she currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband, three young children, and the world’s most patient dog and cat. Learn more at www.noracarpenterwrites.com.