Monday, November 25, 2013

Rethinking Mentally Ill Antagonists in YA

I just finished reading a book for a review on my blog in January where the villain's motivation is boiled down to one and only one factor: She's got Schizotypal Personality Disorder.  Throughout the book this antagonist forms predatory relationships with other teens, seeks out romantic relationships, aligns herself with other characters in social ways, goes clubbing (and is well known as the life of the party at the club), and essentially rapes the male MC. And she kills a bunch of people.

So here's what Wikipedia says about SPD...

Schizotypal personality disorder is a personality disorder characterized by a need for social isolation, anxiety in social situations, odd behavior and thinking, and often unconventional beliefs. People with this disorder feel extreme discomfort with maintaining close relationships with people, and therefore they often do not. People who have this disorder may display peculiar manners of talking and dressing and often have difficulty in forming relationships. In some cases, they may react oddly in conversations, not respond or talk to themselves. They frequently misinterpret situations as being strange or having unusual meaning for them; paranormal and superstitious beliefs are not uncommon. People with this disorder seek medical attention for things such as anxiety, depression, or other symptoms. Schizotypal personality disorder occurs in 3% of the general population and is slightly more common in males.

I chose this not because Wikipedia is the best online resource for researching mental illness, but because it's a known quantity that most everyone has access to, and these days it is pretty well fact-checked. In other words, it doesn't take a rocket scientist or a PHD in clinical psychology to google SPD and find out of maybe that's an inaccurate reflection of the character you're creating.

And it doesn't take someone with my credentials (MHS, MSW, LPC, CRC) to read the first paragraph on the Wikipedia page and say, "hmm, maybe I need to keep looking."

You know, maybe.

Or maybe I don't need to label a character as mentally ill at all in order to make him a bad person.

With all the talk of the need for more cultural diversity in YA lately, one piece of the puzzle is struggling for consideration. Mental illness. And it's an important piece, because mental illness doesn't care what color your skin is or how much money you have in the bank or where you come from or what you look like or how nice you are.

Mental illness doesn't care if you deserve it. As a person I love's therapist once told him, "It just is."

It is essential that we rethink these things as writers and readers of books for teens. Because more than any other facet of our universe, teenagers struggle with mental illness. Here are just a few reasons why.

One in five teenagers has a diagnosable mental health condition.

20-30% of Americans will have a major depressive episode before they reach age twenty-one.

50-75% of people being treated for a mental illness first experienced their symptoms as teenagers.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people. Of the young people who complete suicide, nearly seventy-five percent of them had a diagnosable mental health condition.

So say you're a sixteen year old girl that's recently been institutionalized because you told your guidance counselor you've been hearing voices and you think the FBI is stalking you through your school email and because you've been thinking the only way stop all that is to kill yourself. You get put in a mental health hospital on a 72 hour hold so doctors can ask you a whole bunch of questions and ask your mom a whole bunch of questions and they can give you pills that make you feel like your head weighs ten thousand pounds but hey at least the voices have stopped telling you to kill yourself for the first time in five years. The doctors tell your mom they think you might have Schizotypal Personality Disorder, and you've got no clue what that means but the words alone scare the hell out of you. When you're not being interrogated or pumped with pills or watching the other kids who are there do scary things, you decide to escape into the world of books because, unlike people, books don't scare you too much.

You pick up a book about super heroes because you like comic books and X-men and this sounds like something you can totally escape into reading and forget about reality for a while. You're reading along, cheering on the hero, hating on the villain and totally enthralled in the story.

Until about three quarters of the way through when the author drops the antagonist's motivation on you. She's got schizotypal personality disorder.

But wait, you think. Didn't the doctor tell my mom that's what he thinks I have?

You don't want to become a killer and a rapist or manipulate people or be a freaking villain in a book about heroes!  And you don't want other people your age to think you're a bad guy because you spent a week in a mental hospital and got slapped with a label that is going to follow you around for your entire life.

And you don't need another reason to be afraid of what a label will do to your future.

All writers should be concerned about the authenticity of the characters they create and the stories they tell. But for me it goes beyond that when you are writing books for people whose brains are not finished developing. The lines between fact and fiction can and do blur for teens and when you put something in writing, whether it's on Facebook, Wikipedia, or in a novel, you become an authority figure to a young reader.

Does this mean we shouldn't have people with mental illness in our books? No. Absolutely not. It is essential that we have characters our readers can relate to, and one in five of our readers can relate to mental illness they are experiencing themselves. Five in five can relate to the mental illness of someone they know. We must write characters who experience real problems, and we must do so in a way that is mindful to the people who will be reading our words.

Psychosis doesn't automatically make someone violent. A close family member of mine is schizophrenic and she has a much greater chance of harming herself than anyone else. Many people with mental illness are scared and burdened by their diseases, not driven by it.

A diagnosis doesn't (and shouldn't) make someone a bad guy.

On the flip side, there are some AWESOME YA books that deal with mental illness. This year, I've really enjoyed (not all 2013 titles but I read them this year) FORGIVE ME LEONARD PEACOCK by Matthew Quick, PROMISE ME SOMETHING by Sarah Kocek, A REALLY AWESOME MESS by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin, IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY by Ned Vizzini, and SUICIDE NOTES by Michael Thomas Ford.

What are some YA books you've read that authentically represent mental illness in teen characters?

Dannie Morin is an author, blogger, and freelance editor. She's currently contemplating seeking help for her social media addiction. In the meantime, you can find her on Blogger, Facebook, Goodreads, & Twitter. If you've got suggestions for a future All the Feels post, contact Dannie via the contact form on her blog. She is repped by Thao Le of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.


  1. Excellent post, Dannie! Of recent reads, I thought DR. BIRD'S ADVICE FOR SAD POETS did a good job representing teen depression. And I've heard good things about WHERE THE MOON ISN'T, which is next on my to-read list!

  2. I love, love, loved IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY. Great post!

  3. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this post! As someone who has mental illnesses herself (anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder), who is the mom of a child with mental health issues and a child on the autism spectrum, this is a huge issue for me. As an author, I try to have positive characters who have mental illnesses, and I think it's vital for teens to see these characters represented accurately and positively.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Thank you so much for this post. Like so many others, my life has been affected by mental illness, both my own (depression, anxiety) and the multiple cases of varying illnesses dotting my family tree like slightly misshapen but not necessarily unattractive branches.

    It really is a lazy way to bring some sense of "realism" to your antagonist--or your protagonist, for that matter. I suppose the author of the work you mentioned was trying to be a step above having *no* rationale for the villain's behavior, which is the ultimate in lazy writing, but creating a haphazard reason that's factually incorrect and potentially damaging is far worse than the equivalent of "she's just a bad person, okay?"

    Fleshing out antagonists is certainly important, and taking the time to create a believable explanation (not excuse) for why s/he does what s/he does is laudable. Relying solely on mental illness as a boogeyman is not, especially when you *are* aiming your books at younger people who are already so easily terrified of being considered different--those who are actually diagnosed with some form of mental illness or syndrome are even more susceptible to self-judgment. I do my best to explain most villains' behaviors as being the result of how they were raised, how peers and family treated them, how they learned behavior from those around them, their environment, and yes, perhaps some element of mental illness. But the latter is only one ingredient of the stew that creates any character.

    I applaud you for this important post. Especially timely since, tragically, Ned Vizzini (the author of "It's Kind of a Funny Story") committed suicide just the other day.

    Thank you again.

    1. Yes, I was heartbroken to hear about Ned. My heart goes out to his family.

  7. Mental illness is a huge factor in most of my novels. In the two that I have published so far--

    Novel #1 - (not a YA novel) protagonist is a paranoid schizophrenic who destabilizes when he is investigated in connection with a jewel heist

    Novel #2 - not to give away too much of the storyline, the protagonist deals with a mother with severe depression

    In others that I have written, I have dealt a lot with RAD, FASD, autism spectrum, narcissistic personality, alcoholism and addiction, psychosis, munchausen, munchausen by proxy, etc. Sometimes the mental illness is actually named, and sometimes it is in the background and never named.