Should we be concerned about trauma portrayal in YA novels?

As the fall semester begins, Hope College students are getting back into their academic routines. For some, this process is simple – all it takes is a week to memorize their schedules, meet their professors and say hello to all their friends before the routine is solidified. For others, it can be a grueling process both mentally and physically: the walk from a cottage to Lubbers Hall, the newfound stress in 300-level classes or even the overwhelming COVID-19 panic can make the routine-making process difficult. 

A 2013 study by the Harvard Review of Psychiatry suggests that an estimated 17.3 percent of college students have depression, 4.1 percent have panic disorder and 7 percent have generalized anxiety disorder. At Hope, that estimate places the number of students with mental illnesses at roughly 894. Mental illness often originates with the reaction to a traumatic event. The media we consume affects how we view that trauma, as well as how we view our own mental health and struggles. 

Throughout middle and high school, many students divulge in the genre of fiction known as Young Adult (YA). For many, these novels are more than easy to fall in love with. The term “fangirl” was coined because so many adolescent girls were doing just that. My question is, because so many college students struggle with mental illness and distress, are YA novels equipping us with the right tools to confront trauma when it occurs in our own lives? 

Many of us grew up reading books such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (Stephen Chbosky), “The Fault in Our Stars” (John Green) and “Thirteen Reasons Why” (Jay Asher). These books are, admittedly, just stories intended to pull at the heart strings of the reader. Their authors most likely did not sit and ponder the traumas, mental illnesses and repercussions that their characters endured. However, with a target audience as impressionable as adoring adolescents, should they have taken more care with these subjects? Let’s discuss.

First, it is important to define trauma and the optimal ways a person should go about dealing with it. CAPS Clinical Coordinator Dr. Bill Russner said trauma is “a negative event or series of events, either directly experienced or witnessed by an individual, that causes significant emotional, psychological and behavioral disturbances that impact an individual’s ability to adequately function.” Some examples of a possible traumatic event include (but are not limited to): divorce, sexual misconduct, illness and death. As far as dealing with this trauma, Russner said there are multiple ways to go about doing so. 

“If an adolescent is experiencing a diagnosable trauma reaction [i.e. PTSD or Acute Stress Disorder], it is best that they work with a mental health professional. Without proper treatment, it is very difficult for someone on their own to overcome a serious trauma disorder,” said Russner. However, if the reaction is not serious enough to be considered one of the diagnosable trauma reactions, there are multiple ways of dealing with it, like keeping a structured routine, joining a support group or taking good care of physical health. 

The question then becomes, when should a person get professional help? Signs that an adolescent may be in need of professional help include: outbursts of emotion, regular difficulty sleeping, obsession over the traumatic event, withdrawal from hobbies and serious issues at school. 

Now that we have that out of the way, onto the discussion! 

When asked about whether media affects the way we view these topics, Russner uses the “Harry Potter” series as his example. “In the vast majority of books and movies, the impact of traumatic events is significantly minimized. I always think about the ‘Harry Potter’ stories and how incredibly traumatized Harry, Ron and Hermione would have actually been, given the events they experienced,” said Russner. 

Another example of YA fiction that mishandles its portrayal of mental illness is Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which became the target of  mainstream controversy when the novel was made into the popular Netflix original series of the same name. In both the show and the book, the main character, Hannah Baker, commits suicide. Her strategy in doing so is described clearly, in a manner that might wrongfully inspire others to do the same. The finale of the show includes a highly graphic three-minute scene of Baker taking her own life. 

When the show became popular, the book went through a resurgence in its own popularity, bringing it back to the top of the New York Times Bestseller charts. For nineteen days after the release of the series, Google searches involving suicide increased by a whopping 19 percent, said a 2017 study conducted by John Ayers, Benjamin Althouse and Eric Leas. The specific search, “How to commit suicide,” increased by 26 percent. All this was due to a mostly faithful adaptation of the death of a fictional teen. 

The fictional high schoolers claim to have had no idea Baker was even hurting at all. This leads us to a new question: when writing about mental illness and trauma, should the affected receive professional attention? Would that allow for the fiction to be an effective example for its young audience? Would it allow for it to be a teaching tool?

Our next example is John Green’s 2012 teen romance novel “The Fault in Our Stars.” The book opens with our main character, sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster. Lancaster is diagnosed with thyroid cancer and, on the first page, we learn her mother has “decided [Lancaster] was depressed.” Due to this depression, her mother gets her psychiatric help and makes her attend a cancer support group, led by a cancer survivor. 

Here, we have an example of our main character receiving medical help, though not the help of a trained professional. While her support group leader knows her cancer experience, he is not a professional in dealing with issues of mental health. As Russner informed us in the beginning, when diagnosed with a mental illness, a support group is an effective strategy to use in dealing with it. However, it is the mixture of therapy and psychiatric support that is the most effective. Not only that, but once Lancaster meets her romantic lead Augustus Waters, her mental illness seems to disappear. This creates the idea––subconsciously or not––that romantic relationships can and should “save” a person from their trauma, distress and illnesses. 

Lastly, we have “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Readers follow Charlie Kelmeckis, a freshman in high school who would be described, as the title might hint, as a wallflower. At the tail end of his eighth grade year, Kelmeckis’ best friend committed suicide. This is traumatic event number one. 

Readers learn of this event on the second page, where Kelmeckis also confesses how he was instructed to deal with it: “My older brother came to Mr. Vaughn’s office in my middle school and told me to stop crying. Then, he put his arm on my shoulder and told me to get it out of my system before Dad came home.” Later, he admits, “I never did stop crying.” Somehow, before readers even know their main character, they already know that he has experienced unprecedented trauma and has been taught he should not feel his emotions through it. 

By the end of the story, Kelmeckis shows signs of PTSD and is admitted to a mental hospital. This is perhaps our best example of professional treatment, because when Kelmeckis returns home, he views his life rather optimistically. He closes his final letter saying, “So, if this does end up being my last letter, please believe that things are good with me, and even when they’re not, they will be soon enough.” 

Some might argue that novels such as these glorify mental illness and trauma. For the characters of “Thirteen Reasons Why,” Baker’s tapes made their lives almost sensational, as they go through the gripping drama of the mystery. For “The Fault in Our Stars,” Lancaster and Waters would have never been able to go live their teenage romance off in a foreign country as minors if not for their traumatic diagnoses. In “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” readers look up to the main trio of characters, all of whom relate to one another through their traumatic experiences, as if they admit them to an exclusive club. 

Still, we are left with a sense of confusion regarding the topic of debate. What is the right thing for YA fiction authors and their readers to do? While conducting my research for this article, I came across an important counter argument. In the opening pages of Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” he has an author’s note. “This book is a work of fiction. I made it up. Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species,” says Green.

Rates of depression in adolescents between ages 14 and 17 have increased by 60 percent between 2009 and 2017, said a 2019 study conducted by the American Psychological Association. As our country’s mental health declines at a rapid rate, we should take more care when creating works that involve trauma and mental illness. Not only that, but we should remember Green’s words, “This book is a work of fiction.” Yes, they are. They are works of fiction that alter the way we think and talk about mental illness. 

If these are the kinds of books you read growing up, it is important to detach your knowledge of mental illness from the very fictional illnesses and traumas experienced by characters like Hannah Baker, Hazel Grace Lancaster and Charlie Kelmeckis. It is our job to realize that these representations become problematic precisely when they become our only source of information on the topic. 

At Hope, 10 percent of our student population is majoring or minoring in psychology. Hope also has many English and education majors and minors. Each of these students have the possibility to become counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, editors, publishers, authors and, of course, educators. As a community, it is necessary to discuss this topic and treat it with the proper amount of attention it deserves, especially since so many of our future occupations deal directly with it. 

In a world where mental health has become an ever-expanding topic of interest, discussions like these are necessary to have––even if a clear answer is not yet found. As writers and artists, we need to take these issues into account when creating art that includes topics such as these. As we of the younger generation grow into adulthood, it is critical that we analyze the media we held so dearly in our adolescent years so that media in itself can grow and change as we do. 

Katy Smith (‘23) is a communications major, theatre and writing minor at Hope. Her passions lie in the arts, specifically playwriting, poetry, performing, and any music that makes you feel wanderlust. She is so honored to be the Anchor’s Arts Editor! She strives to give Hope’s wonderful arts programs the platform they deserve.

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