Maybe Your Students Need More Stories About Mental HEALTH
(adapted from an article I wrote on Linked In) As we get ready to send our children, our adolescents, our teens and young adults, back into the classroom, it's time to think about those fall stressors, what each child is dealing with at home, in their personal lives, plus the pressures they face, perhaps, from the kid sitting next to them, or waiting for them down the hall. Knowing this, knowing how many of our teens, especially, are suffering these days, many educators will encourage them to read books about mental illness. There are long lists of such books, many of them great, compelling stories, many award-winners, but how often I wish these stories reflected less about mental illness and more about mental HEALTH.
In fact, IMHO, some of the most famous of these books seem to glamorize mental illness and/or suicide in problematic ways. In these stories, the adults are rarely helpful and rarely very present at all.
In the face of rising natural, and unnatural, disasters, there's an oft-quoted Mr. Rogers' line, "Look for the helpers," but so often in these stories our kids read, the helpers, quite frankly, just aren't very good. They really don't seem to care much. They don't have much skill.
When I sign copies of STARS, I often include a replica of Sister Agnes Teresa's ladder up. Because who doesn't need a ladder up sometimes?
I wondered why this was. . . and, as I wrote and shaped IN SIGHT OF STARS and realized my protagonist, Klee, was in a bad way and needed help, I wanted to present the other side, the side I have been lucky enough to experience -- from my high school guidance counselor who offered me a safe haven through all of junior and senior year, through some of the extraordinary therapists who have helped me and my family through some of our roughest times, their roughest times, as I raised my kids.
That is Dr. Alvarez, a character modeled largely on a real therapist, a true and extraordinary helper who patiently works with Klee until he is ready to participate in his own healing during his stay at an in-patient rehab facility in a fictional town in upstate NY. Therapists can be like shoes -- it often takes several tryings on before you find one that fits, find one that is comfortable, the right size and style for you. But they are out there, and I'm hungry for them to be fully reflected in books for teens. Similarly, I'm anxious for the use of psychotropic medications, where needed, to be positively reflected in young adult stories, which is to say, they don't change who a person is, or undermine their ability to be creative -- If they are, perhaps that person is on the wrong medication for them, or the wrong dosage. My experience with such medications is they simply allow the person to function more typically, as themselves, by quieting or taking the edge offatypicaland problematic body chemistry. In IN SIGHT OF STARS, Klee needs the help of medication for the time being, and may not need those medications in the near future. Yes, there is language in the story. YES, there are intense situations. Have you seen what our kids are privy to these days? Have you met any of our teens? Look, all I know is our kids need help and support ,and if you want them to feel safe seeking it out, share stories with them where the help HELPS. Because it can, and does.