Young Adult Books with Mentally Ill Characters (Without Being All About Their Mental Illness)

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Representation of all kinds of humans is important. In books, there’s been a push to have more characters with accurate representations of mental illness. All too often, books will rely on stereotypes or depict a character with mental illnesses without doing proper research. Stay faaaaaar, far away from those.

On the other hand, there are also plenty of books that make a character’s mental illness the entire focus. While there is nothing inherently wrong with accurate, well-written books with mentally ill characters, sometimes you just want an interesting plot without mental illness being the primary focus. Or you’re curious to see how a mental illness looks when characters have managed it with coping skills or medication. Either way, it’s worth seeing more mental illness representation in new and accurate ways.

Where are the YA Characters with Mental Illnesses That Don’t Dominate the Plot?

Young adult books are often guilty of this. It isn’t wrong or awful to have books that focus on mental illness. Actually, it’s helping push more productive discussions of mental illness into mainstream conversation.

But teens also need books that have characters managing their conditions without it dominating the entire plot.

Thankfully, more books are coming onto shelves and filling that demand. It’s hard to know the accurate number of books with the combination of mainstream and self-published options available, but finding books featuring teens with mental illnesses is getting easier every day. Here are some of my own suggestions when it comes to young adult books mentally ill characters…without mental illness being the focal point of the story.

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

This suspenseful, dark academia-themed murder mystery book is perfect for readers looking for a main character with anxiety and panic attacks, but still manages to stay on the case until the very end (warning, it’s a cliffhanger).

Without spoilers, Stevie’s passion for true crime takes front and center in this book, but does not ignore her anxiety. Her experience is very relatable and shows that her entire life isn’t dominated by her panic attacks while being realistic about her struggle. The rest of the book is primarily focused on the mystery at hand and developing the characters…AKA, potential murderers.

Horrid by Katrina Leno

Several characters in the book struggle with anger issues, including the main character Jane. It’s also implied that Jane has pica, or a compulsion to chew or eat objects that are not food. Her target tends to be pages of books or flowers.

Though her anger and grief over a family member’s death make up a large part of the novel, her illnesses are more there as a side note as opposed to the primary focus. The novel leaves room for questions about how much Jane’s conditions may have affected her actions.

Like Truly Devious, we’re left on a cliffhanger-like ending, but there doesn’t appear to be any plans for a sequel. It seems more like an ambiguous ending where the reader decides what really contributes to the events.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

The Six of Crows Duology reinvented what fantasy could look like. Bardugo has received well-deserved praise for her fantasy series featuring six astounding characters. Besides tackling ableism from learning disabilities and physical disabilities, Bardugo also masterfully weaves in characters with implied PTSD.

As Alaina Leary wrote in Brooklyn Magazine, “Bardugo writes in multiple perspectives, which does a great deal of justice to her characters’ lived experiences.” This gives all of the characters much more nuance and room to be their whole selves, emphasizing that while disabilities (mental or physical) are a big part of their lives, there is still much more to be seen in their character and the story itself.

Want to see more books like this added to the list?

Keep an eye out for updates and feel free to recommend any books you’ve loved that fit the criteria!


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