"Librarians save lives by handing the right book at the right time to a kid in need." —Judy Blume
You know that feeling you get when you place that "just right" book in the hands of a student? The book that zeros in on the feeling they are trying express at that moment in their live? Or the one that makes them feel they are not alone, they are not the only one struggling with an issue? For me, it's a feeling of great satisfaction; in these instances, I have fulfilled my driving passion as a school librarian who believes books can help with almost everything.
Ideally, this would be a book that addresses the issue a student is dealing with. The issue may be at the center of the story's conflict or it could be a minor piece, but it will do one of two things: it will either let that student know that they are not alone, or it will give them the chance to escape their reality even if it's just for a while. Did you know that, according to the Office of Adolescent Health, 20% of youth ages 13-18 have had a serious mental health disorder? In many cases, the condition hasn't been diagnosed and so the teen is struggling alone. A well-written piece of realistic fiction can provide some understanding or support, not only for the teen with questions about what they're going through, but also for a concerned friend who may be trying to figure out how to help. It is important to keep in mind that some books and/or topics can be a trigger to a student dealing with mental health issues, so watch for changing behavior.
I have always used several methods. In additional to frequenting bookstores and reading reviews, blogs, and tweets, I talk with my students and encourage them to suggest books they have heard about or read. For particular issues, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, or cyberbullying, I often hand a book over to the guidance counselor to read and review. Sometimes the book becomes a focus point for a group facing similar issues.
I often include these contemporary titles when making suggestions to English teachers for additions to classroom libraries:
- Anorexia: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Bipolar disorder: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
- Cyberbullying: The Fall by James Preller
- Drug rehab: Clean by Amy Reed
- OCD: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
- PTSD: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk
- Schizophrenia: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
- Suicide: Hold Still by Nina LaCour
There are two other books I often offer to a student who wants a special title. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, a well-written book about family, love, and loss with a twist at the end. It leaves anyone reading it with something to think about. And, Thin Space by Jody Casella, a suspenseful story of loss and the sorrow of being left behind. While these two books do not strictly deal with mental illness, they do deal with teens facing emotional issues.
Sometimes books like these garner high interest, which may lead to challenges. A parent or other adult may pick up the book and make a judgement without a full reading of it, so be sure you have a current reconsideration policy. These books can be rough or raw, insightful, and eye opening, which may be threatening to some readers. However, I believe their benefits far outweigh their risk. Someone reading a book will imagine as much or little detail as they feel comfortable with. Students will take from the story what they are ready to understand, and it may be just what is needed to let the reader know they are not alone or that support is available.
While you must decide what books you feel you can defend and suggest to your community, keep in mind that these books may be a key support that a student in crisis can grab onto.
Office of Adolescent Health. "Mental Health in Adolescents." HHS.gov, US Department of Health and Human Services, February 24, 2017, https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-development/mental-health/index.html