Mental illness in teen books has become more abundant in the last few years, in part because of how discussion of mental illness has grown more mainstream culturally. Today’s teens are absolutely changing the discussion, and what used to be a silent suffering is being better understood and discussed. Teen books about depression in particular are offering a space for seeing the myriad shapes and forms that the illness can take.
Although I myself was not diagnosed with depression clinically until I was an adult, I struggled with it throughout my teen years. Depression, despite having a few markers that are common among those who struggle, is not a universal experience. And, fortunately, teen books about depression showcase this. For some, depression is all-consuming. For others, it can be more of a background noise in the day-to-day of their lives.
Teen books about depression will hit with readers in different ways, too. Some will feel true to their own experiences—personally or peripherally—while others will not. But it doesn’t mean that the books which don’t resonate are showing an incorrect aspect of living with depression. This is why having such a variety of titles matters—YA books about depression should allow readers a way to seeing the variety of experiences that occur. A book being relatable to one individual who struggles may not be relatable to another who struggles. But it’s through reading and understanding where and why it’s different that we better recognize that depression is not one size fits all. There is no single way to “get it right.”
For readers unfamiliar, a broad definition is that depression is a feeling of despondency, sadness, and disinterest in the activities in which one once experienced enjoyment. Depression can last for days or weeks, sometimes years or months, and it’s frequently caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Depression can also be caused by trauma. The way depression presents differs by individuals, but some of the common symptoms include exhaustion, physical pain, lethargy, and disruptions in sleeping, eating, and thinking patterns. Bipolar disorder, also sometimes referred to as manic depression, differs from depression in that it causes bouts of deep sadness, as well as periods of elation and mania. The shifts in mood can be sudden or they can be gradual. Those with bipolar disorder may experience intense, unbelievable productivity and excitement, followed by a lengthy period of being unable to be motivated for even the “easiest” of daily activities, such as getting out of bed, making food, or brushing their teeth.
The following list of teen books about depression—fiction and nonfiction—explore both the generalized illness, as well as bipolar disorder. These titles may feature a main character who is struggling with the illness or they may be about how a loved one’s struggle impacts their life. All titles, though, are well-reviewed and conscious of presenting a serious illness in a way that’s realistic and sensitive. Without doubt, it’s through YA books about depression that many young readers, as well as the adults in their lives, might better understand the struggle.
As always, if you or someone you love exhibits symptoms that might mirror those of depression, seek help or encourage seeking help. The difference between living with depression and living with a means to manage depression—whether through therapy, medication, a combination of the two, or other forms of help—are life-changing. Depression can’t be cured, but it can be healthfully managed.
Teen Books About Depression
Crazy by Amy Reed
Connor knows that Izzy will never fall in love with him the way he’s fallen for her. But somehow he’s been let into her crazy, exhilarating world and become her closest confidante. But the closer they get, the more Connor realizes that Izzy’s highs are too high and her lows are too low. And the frenetic energy that makes her shine is starting to push her into a much darker place.
As Izzy’s behavior gets increasingly erratic and self-destructive, Connor gets increasingly desperate to stop her from plummeting. He knows he can’t save her from her pain…but what if no one else can?
(Don’t) Call Me Crazy edited by Kelly Jensen (October 2)
What does it mean to be crazy? Is using the word crazy offensive? What happens when such a label gets attached to your everyday experiences?
In order to understand mental health, we need to talk openly about it. Because there’s no single definition of crazy, there’s no single experience that embodies it, and the word itself means different things—wild? extreme? disturbed? passionate?—to different people.
(Don’t) Call Me Crazy is a conversation starter and guide to better understanding how our mental health affects us every day. Thirty-three writers, athletes, and artists offer essays, lists, comics, and illustrations that explore their personal experiences with mental illness, how we do and do not talk about mental health, help for better understanding how every person’s brain is wired differently, and what, exactly, might make someone crazy.
If you’ve ever struggled with your mental health, or know someone who has, come on in, turn the pages, and let’s get talking.
Full disclosure: author of this post is editor of this collection. But with 33 voices—and an entire section on depression—it’s definitely a wide view of the illness.
Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos
“I hate myself but I love Walt Whitman, the kook. Always positive. I need to be more positive, so I wake myself up every morning with a song of myself.”
Sixteen-year-old James Whitman has been yawping (à la Whitman) at his abusive father ever since he kicked his beloved older sister, Jorie, out of the house. James’s painful struggle with anxiety and depression—along with his ongoing quest to understand what led to his self-destructive sister’s exile—make for a heart-rending read, but his wild, exuberant Whitmanization of the world and keen sense of humor keep this emotionally charged debut novel buoyant.
Fans of The Impossible Life by Kate Scelsa
Mira is starting over at Saint Francis Prep. She promised her parents she would at least try to pretend that she could act like a functioning human this time, not a girl who can’t get out of bed for days on end, who only feels awake when she’s with Sebby.
Jeremy is the painfully shy art nerd at Saint Francis who’s been in self-imposed isolation after an incident that ruined his last year of school. When he sees Sebby for the first time across the school lawn, it’s as if he’s been expecting this blond, lanky boy with mischief glinting in his eye.
Sebby, Mira’s gay best friend, is a boy who seems to carry sunlight around with him. Even as life in his foster home starts to take its toll, Sebby and Mira together craft a world of magic rituals and impromptu road trips, designed to fix the broken parts of their lives.
As Jeremy finds himself drawn into Sebby and Mira’s world, he begins to understand the secrets that they hide in order to protect themselves, to keep each other safe from those who don’t understand their quest to live for the impossible.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
Today is Leonard Peacock’s birthday. It is also the day he hides a gun in his backpack. Because today is the day he will kill his former best friend, and then himself, with his grandfather’s P-38 pistol.
But first he must say goodbye to the four people who matter most to him: his Humphrey Bogart–obsessed next-door neighbor, Walt; his classmate, Baback, a violin virtuoso; Lauren, the Christian homeschooler he has a crush on; and Herr Silverman, who teaches the high school’s class on the Holocaust. Speaking to each in turn, Leonard slowly reveals his secrets as the hours tick by and the moment of truth approaches.
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 [transgender] 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.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.
But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself—or worse.
The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork
16-year-old Vicky Cruz wakes up in a hospital’s mental ward after a failed suicide attempt. Now she must find a path to recovery—and perhaps rescue some others along the way.
When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital Mental Disorders ward, she knows one thing: After her suicide attempt, she shouldn’t be alive. But then she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.
But Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up, sending Vick back to the life that drove her to suicide, she must try to find her own courage and strength. She may not have them. She doesn’t know.
Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one—about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again—but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.
When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.
Why does happiness have to be so hard?
Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over by Amy Bleuel
Project Semicolon began in 2013 to spread a message of hope: No one struggling with a mental illness is alone; you, too, can survive and live a life filled with joy and love. In support of the project and its message, thousands of people all over the world have gotten semicolon tattoos and shared photos of them, often alongside stories of hardship, growth, and rebirth.
Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over reveals dozens of new portraits and stories from people of all ages talking about what they have endured and what they want for their futures. This represents a new step in the movement and a new awareness around those who struggle with mental illness and those who support them. At once heartfelt, unflinchingly honest, and eternally hopeful, this collection tells a story of choice: every day you choose to live and let your story continue on.
Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
Francesca is stuck at St. Sebastian’s, a boys’ school that pretends it’s coed by giving the girls their own bathroom. Her only female companions are an ultra-feminist, a rumored slut, and an impossibly dorky accordion player. The boys are no better, from Thomas, who specializes in musical burping, to Will, the perpetually frowning, smug moron that Francesca can’t seem to stop thinking about.
Then there’s Francesca’s mother, who always thinks she knows what’s best for Francesca—until she is suddenly stricken with acute depression, leaving Francesca lost, alone, and without an inkling of who she really is. Simultaneously humorous, poignant, and impossible to put down, this is the story of a girl who must summon the strength to save her family, her social life and—hardest of all—herself.
Silhouetted by the Blue by Traci L. Jones
Seventh-grader Serena Shaw is trying to keep up at school while rehearsing for the lead role in the spring musical and dealing with a father so “blue” he is nearly catatonic. With the aid of a not-so-secret admirer as well as a growing sense of self-confidence, she faces the challenges of caring for herself and her ball-of-charm younger brother, all while attempting to lead the life of a normal pre-teen. Readers will be drawn into this convincing portrait of a vivacious young person who is on a path to discovering that taking on responsibility sometimes means finding the best way to ask for help.
We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson
Henry Denton has spent years being periodically abducted by aliens. Then the aliens give him an ultimatum: The world will end in 144 days, and all Henry has to do to stop it is push a big red button.
Only he isn’t sure he wants to.
After all, life hasn’t been great for Henry. His mom is a struggling waitress held together by a thin layer of cigarette smoke. His brother is a jobless dropout who just knocked someone up. His grandmother is slowly losing herself to Alzheimer’s. And Henry is still dealing with the grief of his boyfriend’s suicide last year.
Wiping the slate clean sounds like a pretty good choice to him.
But Henry is a scientist first, and facing the question thoroughly and logically, he begins to look for pros and cons: in the bully who is his perpetual one-night stand, in the best friend who betrayed him, in the brilliant and mysterious boy who walked into the wrong class. Weighing the pain and the joy that surrounds him, Henry is left with the ultimate choice: push the button and save the planet and everyone on it…or let the world—and his pain—be destroyed forever.
Welcome To The Jungle: Everything You Wanted To Know About Bipolar But Were Too Afraid To Ask by Hilary T. Smith
Bipolar is one of the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric conditions among teens and twenty-somethings—yet there are very few books out there written specifically for young people experiencing mental illness for the first time.
Welcome to the Jungle fills that gap with its upfront, empowering approach to the challenges of being diagnosed with bipolar. Both humorous and immensely honest, it offers a true “in the trenches” perspective young readers will trust.
The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati
Seventeen-year-old Cath knows Zero is coming for her. Zero, the devastating depression born of Catherine’s bipolar disease, has almost triumphed once, propelling Catherine to her first suicide attempt. With Zero only temporarily restrained by the latest med du jour, time is running out. In an old ballet shoebox, Catherine stockpiles meds, preparing to take her own life when Zero next arrives.
But Zero’s return is delayed. Unexpected relationships along with the care of a new psychiatrist start to alter Catherine’s perception of her diagnosis. But will this be enough? This is a story of loss and grief and hope and how the many shapes of love—maternal, romantic and platonic—impact a young woman’s struggle with mental illness.
When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez
A Goth girl with an attitude problem, Elizabeth Davis must learn to control her anger before it destroys her. Emily Delgado appears to be a smart, sweet girl, with a normal life, but as depression clutches at her, she struggles to feel normal. Both girls are in Ms. Diaz’s English class, where they connect to the words of Emily Dickinson. Both are hovering on the edge of an emotional precipice. One of them will attempt suicide. And with Dickinson’s poetry as their guide, both girls must conquer their personal demons to ever be happy.
In an emotionally taut novel with a richly diverse cast of characters, readers will relish in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and be completely swept up in the turmoil of two girls grappling with demons beyond their control.
When We Collided by Emery Lord
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.
Want more books that explore mental illness? Check out these useful books about depression, books for parents of kids with depression, 100 must-read books about depression, and self-help books for depression.