Wednesday 10 October 2012

Bipolar Characters in Children's and YA Fiction

It's World Mental Health Day today - so what better time to address the subject of mental health in children's and YA books? I'm going to focus on bipolar disorder, because it's a particular interest of mine. But much of what I say can be applied to depression and other mental health conditions.

First of all, let me announce that I'm a sufferer myself from chronic/recurrent depression. Although I've never been diagnosed as bipolar, I do have mood swings and have some idea, at least, of what the highs as well as the lows can be like (the highs in my case may possibly be the result of not getting the levels of medication right - who knows?)

I now believe that my depression started when I was in my teens, though I had no idea what to call it at the time. It was all put down to PMT, though I'm not sure that the term had been invented in the late sixties. The fact that I suffered from it at other times of the month - well, that's easily got around - there's always another period on the horizon somewhere!

Or perhaps it began even earlier, when I was five and my dad disappeared off to Singapore with the RAF and I was terrified for months afterwards that my mum would vanish too. I'm sure my parents did their best, but knowing me, a book would probably have helped, and there weren't books for kids about that sort of thing in those days.

Perhaps I became depressed when bullied at my new school at seven, when I was ostracised because of my 'posh accent'. The memory still brings tears to my eyes and the teachers didn't help.

My depressive episodes, never diagnosed or treated, recurred at intervals of a few years until eventually, in my late twenties and living in Edinburgh with two small children, I took myself off to the GP with stomachache and she had the sense to see that there was something more going on. I was prescribed anti-depressants (which I refused to take on that first occasion) and told to get a part-time job. The part-time job helped. But the depression came back after a couple of years. This time it was worse and I took the medication. I also had counselling and the combination of the two brought joy and colour into my life that I'd forgotten could exist. Just waking up in the morning feeling at peace with myself... free from the self-condemnation, guilt, shame, worry, and all those other horrible things depressed people suffer.

Since then, I've had further episodes, often but not always associated with times of difficulty and stress in my life. I still fear my depression and try to make sure I don't get too busy or stressed out - but it hits me from time to time. I'm adept these days at recognising the early warning symptoms. I have medication on hand and don't delay in visiting my GP. In fact my depression these days is like my bad back in some ways - I know that if I'm sensible I have less of a chance of setting it off - but there's always the possibility that something (or nothing) will trigger it. And I have to accept that I'll have down times when I can't do very much.

I'm very lucky in one respect, though. I have never been too depressed to read. I have several favourite books I turn to when I feel bad. William Styron's memoir Darkness Visible is one of them - where the great American author describes his own experience of depression. I'm not sure why it helps me, but it does. Perhaps it's just the putting into words of some of my own dreadful thoughts. The 'I'm not the only one' feeling. Whatever it is, I am so grateful to William Styron for writing it.

Anyway - children's books. I decided a few days ago to compile a list of characters in fiction who have bipolar disorder. Of course, it's difficult to be sure, if you go back very far, because the condition wasn't sufficiently understood. I asked for suggestions from various friends, contacts and writers' groups, as well as trying to come up with some of my own. I was partly interested in which books came to people's minds - i.e. the ones that had made a lasting impression. Thanks to all who contributed, I now have a list - and for the purposes of this blog I will restrict it to novels for children and YA.

This is my list, in no particular order (further suggestions most welcome).

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
A Note of Madness by Tabitha Suzuma
A Voice in the Distance by Tabitha Suzuma
My Mum's from Planet Pluto by Gwyneth Rees.
Red Shift by Alan Garner 
Boneland by Alan Garner (though I'm told this is not strictly a children's/YA book)
***Mental by Sherry Ashworth
Girl, Aloud by Emily Gale

*** Mental is actually about schizophrenia, I realise now I've read it, but I'm leaving it on the list as it's a very good book.

Remember, these are for children/YA and I've restricted the condition to bipolar (except for Sherry Ashworth's Mental - see above). And I certainly don't claim that the list is complete. Nor have I read them all (yet). I'm currently enjoying Gwyneth Rees's My Mum's from Planet Pluto, which I'd strongly recommend. But I can't help noticing how few titles there are...

It concerns me that there aren't more. I said earlier that it would have helped me, as a child, if I'd been able to read about someone like me. I'm pleased to say that books for children featuring other kinds of conditions and disabilities are growing in number (though we still need more). We need, in my opinion, both issue-tackling books and books that treat the condition as a background thing - not the focus of the book but something one of the characters just happens to have.

It's the same with mental health. We need children's/YA books that delve deep into the condition (in a way appropriate for the target age-group, of course). But we need characters in books who just happen to have bipolar disorder (or depression or schizophrenia, etc) too. We need books that treat these conditions with gentle humour - combined, of course, with respect. I can laugh at my depression, at least some of the time. Often humour is part of the way we come to terms with things. We need books with 'heroic' endings (character overcomes all the challenges) and ones that are more true to life, while always offering hope. And in order to get this variety - we need LOTS MORE BOOKS. Sorry to shout, but we do.

So come on, children's authors... and publishers. By the time World Mental Health Day comes round next year, let's see a lot more books for children, YA (and adults) on the subject of bipolar disorder and, more generally, on mental health.

I believe there's a role for many of us in helping to remove the stigma attached to mental health conditions that, almost unbelievably, is still present in our society today.

We all have minds, after all, just as we all have backs.

Happy reading

Note: My own contribution to the bipolar list has just come out. It's for adults and it's called Alexa's Song. You can see it on Amazon UK and download it for Amazon Kindle for £2.54.

My blog, Rosalie Reviews
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julia jones said...

Very interesting, thanks for that. Too easy to think of depression as a teens and adult problem, not for the under tens. Thanks for sharing your experience

JO said...

Many thanks for having the courage to write about this.

I used to work in Child Mental Health, and we met children with severe mood swings we were quite certain would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but there is so little research into this condition it was impossible to find an effective way to help them, which was tough for us and doubly terrible for them.

It's so important that mental health becomes a normal subject in children's literature - or these children can simply believe they are mad. And they are NOT!

Emma Barnes said...

Wonderful piece, Ros. One YA book that impressed me was by Crescent Dragonwagon (wonderful name!) called The Year It Rained about a girl recovering from a severe mental health episode (I'm afraid I couldn't tell you whether it was bipolar or not). A beautifully written book.

Penny Dolan said...

Really important points raised in this post, Ros, as well as some useful book suggestions.

Adventure Girl said...

The Madolescents by Chrissie Glazebrook is a YA novel about a self-help group for teens with mental health issues, one of whom is bipolar.

Hazel said...

I've just shared your wonderful post with my friends at The Elephant in the Room (a facebook persona who is actually "handled" by staff at Mind, the mental health charity).
Elefriends, as we are known, provide peer support at a time when external support seems to be harder and harder to access.

Rosalie Warren said...

Thank you all for the lovely comments and book suggestions. I will make sure I check out your suggested books - more for my reading list :-) And thanks for the support - I'm so glad that many of us are thinking the same way.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I totally agree that the issue of emotional problems and mental health should be part and parcel of the books we are writing for young people - not flagged up as a major issue. In my book Illegal, I deal with trauma leading to mutism but I hope that with my character, Karl and the plot and characters in the book, this issue becomes part of the story and not the overwhelming tub-thumping issue.
Very interesting post!!

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Valuable topic of discussion, really.

Virginia Lowe said...

A most helpful blog post, recommended to me by Catherine Butler on the Rutgers lit serve I belong to. A couple of Australian mental health picture books: "The Red Tree" by Shaun Tan - this is about the child having depression, really (the You Tube version is beautiful, and might also be useful...; "Big and Me" by David Miller (Ford Street) - here it is a little machine coping with the dangerous unpredictability of the big one, which distances it well for young children; and "Coming Home" by Sharon McGuinness (Wombat Books)- actually on bi-polar and about a father (most I can find are on mothers).
Virginia Lowe
Create a Kids' Book

Sharon M said...

A very useful blog post, Rosalie and as Virginia already mentioned, I have written a children's picture book called 'Coming Home' which has just been published to coincide with Mental Health Week. It is loosely based on our family as my husband suffered from severe depression as part of his bi polar II disorder. It is written from a child's point of view and I hope it starts a conversation in families where a parent is experiencing depression. You can find more info at

Thanks for mentioning the William Styron book...I'm going to chase that up myself now!