With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I decided to compile a list of 10 YA books I’d recommend that focus on mental illness. I’d varied the list as much as possible so there are books that explore OCD and EDs as well as depression and anxiety, book that feature romance and friendship as well as ones that are dark and honest. Within this list, I hope you can find a book that either resonates with you or will educate you! Please be mindful everyone’s experience with mental illness can be different and only read these books if the topics won’t trigger you.
1. 100 Days of Cake by Shari Goldhagen
There are only three things that can get seventeen-year-old Molly Byrne out of bed these days: her job at FishTopia, the promise of endless episodes of Golden Girls, and some delicious lo mien. You see, for the past two years, Molly’s been struggling with something more than your usual teenage angst. Her shrink, Dr. Brooks isn’t helping much, and neither is her mom who is convinced that baking the perfect cake will cure Molly of her depression—as if cake can magically make her rejoin the swim team, get along with her promiscuous sister, or care about the SATs.
Um, no. Never going to happen.
But Molly plays along, stomaching her mother’s failed culinary experiments, because, whatever—as long as it makes someone happy, right? Besides, as far as Molly’s concerned, hanging out with Alex at the rundown exotic fish store makes life tolerable enough. Even if he does ask her out every…single…day. But—sarcastic drum roll, please—nothing can stay the same forever. When Molly finds out FishTopia is turning into a bleak country diner, her whole life seems to fall apart at once. Soon she has to figure out what—if anything—is worth fighting for.
When compiling this list, I wanted to find a spectrum of reads because not all books about mental health or mental illness need to be sad. Whilst I won’t pretend 100 Days of Cake is groundbreaking or close to perfect, it is one of the few reads I found that is super fun! It’s fluffy and has so many adorable, silly moments without taking away from how serious Molly’s depression is. It’s raw, full of teenage bitchiness and relatable experiences.
2. A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard
Steffi doesn’t talk, but she has so much to say.
Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen.
Their love isn’t a lightning strike, it’s the rumbling roll of thunder.
Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys, it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk, and as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.
A Quiet Kind of Thunder is one of those rare beautiful, heartwarming reads. I don’t think I can adequately express my love for this book enough. This book explores anxiety — alongside issues like selective mutism, deafness, first love, friendship and more. Everything was approached with such respect and care, I left the book feeling more aware than before and I think it’s so valuable to have stories that leave the reader both content and having learned something.
I can feel it swimming through my veins like glitter … it’s liquid gold.
When socialite Lexi Volkov almost overdoses, she thinks she’s hit rock bottom.
She’s wrong. Rock bottom is when she’s forced into an exclusive rehab facility.
From there, the only way is up for Lexi and her fellow inmates, including the mysterious Brady.
As she faces her demons, Lexi realises love is the most powerful drug of all …
It’s a dirty business getting clean …
Clean was one of my favourite reads last year and Dawson’s writing style is unbelievable, leading me to pick up some more of their books since. The cast of Clean is so diverse and it primarily deals with addiction. It mainly takes place at a rehab centre and whilst the main character‘s issue is with drugs, overeating, anorexia, sex addiction and more are explored. Definitely read this with the caution if you think any of those topics could trigger you, but it’s genuinely such an invigorating read that is full of teen drama and a little romance alongside the aforementioned topics.
4. Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone
If you could read my mind, you wouldn’t be smiling.
Samantha McAllister looks just like the rest of the popular girls in her junior class. But hidden beneath the straightened hair and expertly applied makeup is a secret that her friends would never understand: Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD and is consumed by a stream of dark thoughts and worries that she can’t turn off.
Second-guessing every move, thought, and word makes daily life a struggle, and it doesn’t help that her lifelong friends will turn toxic at the first sign of a wrong outfit, wrong lunch, or wrong crush. Yet Sam knows she’d be truly crazy to leave the protection of the most popular girls in school. So when Sam meets Caroline, she has to keep her new friend with a refreshing sense of humor and no style a secret, right up there with Sam’s weekly visits to her psychiatrist.
Caroline introduces Sam to Poet’s Corner, a hidden room and a tight-knit group of misfits who have been ignored by the school at large. Sam is drawn to them immediately, especially a guitar-playing guy with a talent for verse, and starts to discover a whole new side of herself. Slowly, she begins to feel more “normal” than she ever has as part of the popular crowd . . . until she finds a new reason to question her sanity and all she holds dear.
This book shines a light on what it’s like to have OCD and I appreciated the positive representation of getting help — it’s taboo a lot of the time, but medication/therapy isn’t always bad. I don’t think it used love as some magical cure or romanticised OCD in any way and I think that’s a mistake a lot of books involving mental illness make.
5. Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow
Charlotte Davis is in pieces. At seventeen she’s already lost more than most people lose in a lifetime. But she’s learned how to forget. The broken glass washes away the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don’t have to think about your father and the river. Your best friend, who is gone forever. Or your mother, who has nothing left to give you.
Every new scar hardens Charlie’s heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen before you can find your way back from the edge.
Girl in Pieces features a character that struggles with self-harm and addiction. This is an unflinching read and I’d advise to read this if you’re in a stable mindset because it is hard, but that’s a reality of what it can be like to struggle with mental illness. The characters in this are all very complex and it’s no doubt a harsh, yet enlightening, book.
6. It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Ambitious New York City teenager Craig Gilner is determined to succeed at life – which means getting into the right high school to get into the right job. But once Craig aces his way into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School, the pressure becomes unbearable. He stops eating and sleeping until, one night, he nearly kills himself.
Craig’s suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital, where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.
This is one of my friend’s favourite books and she isn’t much of a reader, so I had to see what captivated a non-reader, of course. It’s Kind of a Funny Story delves into what’s it like to have suicidal thoughts and depression, but I found it to be uplifting and inspiring all the same. Depression is dark and horrible, but I liked the fact this book focused on getting better, showing treatment isn’t the same for everyone and used the author’s personal experiences to offer authentic representation.
7. The Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson
May is a survivor. But she doesn’t feel like one. She feels angry. And lost. And alone. Eleven months after the school shooting that killed her twin brother, May still doesn’t know why she was the only one to walk out of the band room that day. No one gets what she went through–no one saw and heard what she did. No one can possibly understand how it feels to be her.
Zach lost his old life when his mother decided to defend the shooter. His girlfriend dumped him, his friends bailed, and now he spends his time hanging out with his little sister…and the one faithful friend who stuck around. His best friend is needy and demanding, but he won’t let Zach disappear into himself. Which is how Zach ends up at band practice that night. The same night May goes with her best friend to audition for a new band.
Which is how May meets Zach. And how Zach meets May. And how both might figure out that surviving could be an option after all.
The Lucky Ones explores anxiety, PTSD and survivor’s guilt through realistic teen voices. It was an emotionally charged read with two contrasting characters alternating POVs and I found it genuinely insightful. It didn’t hold back from the gritty parts or left anything to be sugar-coated. I especially appreciated May was an unapologetically angry teen — she was bitter about a lot of things and had every right to be.
Seventeen-year-old Stevie is trapped. In her life. And now in an eating-disorder treatment center on the dusty outskirts of the New Mexico desert.
Life in the center is regimented and intrusive, a nightmare come true. Nurses and therapists watch Stevie at mealtime, accompany her to the bathroom, and challenge her to eat the foods she’s worked so hard to avoid.
Her dad has signed her up for sixty days of treatment. But what no one knows is that Stevie doesn’t plan to stay that long. There are only twenty-seven days until the anniversary of her brother Josh’s death—the death she caused. And if Stevie gets her way, there are only twenty-seven days until she too will end her life.
Paperweight deals with eating disorders and grief is a sensitive, realistic way. I thought Stevie’s eating disorder was portrayed in a natural way and wasn’t dramatised for the sake of the book. I especially related to the root of Stevie’s issues being a desire for control and this is a book that digs into all the questions around mental illness instead of letting it be and merely telling a story. How does Stevie get better? Why did this happen? What caused this?
9. When We Collided by Emery Lord
We are seventeen and shattered and still dancing. We have messy, throbbing hearts, and we are stronger than anyone could ever know…
Jonah never thought a girl like Vivi would come along.
Vivi didn’t know Jonah would light up her world.
Neither of them expected a summer like this…a summer that would rewrite their futures.
In an unflinching story about new love, old wounds, and forces beyond our control, two teens find that when you collide with the right person at just the right time, it will change you forever.
Emery Lord is easily one of my favourite authors and When We Collided offers an insight into bipolar disorder. I adored how this was not a bipolar girl’s love story — it was a love story that happened to involve a bipolar girl. There‘s still depth and development in concerns to what having bipolar disorder is like and the insight into Vivi’s thoughts is executed perfectly, but it never felt like her bipolar defined her. This book also explores depression and grief.
10. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.
Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit.
This focuses on eating disorders, amongst others issues such as grief. As someone who struggled and been back and forth to hospital because of her eating, I found this book to be a scarily accurate portrayal of what it’s like to have an eating disorder. The obsessive thoughts, the internal monologue, it hit hard. This is an emotionally moving, brutal and unforgiving book that is worth the read — but proceed with caution if it might trigger you because it doesn’t shy away from the reality of EDs whatsoever.
read it and weep,
8 replies on “10 YA Books to Read During Mental Health Awareness Month”
You should read Turtles All the Way Down by John Green!
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Ooh, I haven’t read John Green in years, but I’ve heard a lot about that one. I’ll check it out, thanks!
Wintergirls and It’s Kind of a Funny Story were both favs for me in middle/hs!
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Yesss! I read them quite a while ago myself, but they definitely stuck with me.
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Great post Meg! I didn’t know about most of these books but they seem amazing. I really want to read The Lucky Ones soon, it seems to be really good and it address such an important topic.
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Thank you! The Lucky Ones is amazing and I read it all in one night since I couldn’t put it down.
I LOVE A Quiet Kind of Thunder and so will definitely be checking out these other recs! Great post!
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Thank you 😊
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