5 YA Books That Tackle Mental Health Issues

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Lucas Maxwell


Lucas Maxwell has been working with youth in libraries for over fifteen years. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, he's been a high school librarian in London, UK for over a decade. In 2017 he won the UK's School Librarian of the Year award and in 2022 he was named the UK Literacy Association's Reading For Pleasure Teacher Champion. He loves Dungeons & Dragons and is the author of Let's Roll: A Guide for Setting up Tabletop Roleplaying Games in Your School or Public Library. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

Last month I posted about a sponsored read I was doing in memory of my brother.

The plan was simple, to read five YA novels in five weeks that tackled mental health and substance abuse issues.

I’m very happy to have completed my goal and raised more money than I expected, all for a worthy cause.

Here are the five books I read, with reasons why you should read them too!

Darius the Great is not okay book coverDarius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius is about to take his first trip to Iran to see members of his extended family. His grandfather, whom he has only met previously over Skype, is dying from a brain tumour. Both Darius and his father take anti-depression medication. Darius is wracked with guilt for taking them because, in his words, “nothing bad has ever really happened to me.”

When in Iran he meets Sohrab, who is dealing with family issues of his own. Sohrab is kind, sweet and honest and breaks Darius’s world wide open. You should read Darius the Great is Not Okay because it’s a smart, funny look at the family dynamic and it’s an honest look at depression and how it can affect anyone.

The BoxerThe Boxer by Nikesh Shukla

After a racist attack at a train station, 17-year-old Sunny is left bloody, beaten and filled with anxiety. After some convincing, he joins a boxing gym to help try and ease his PTSD. Over time he meets Keir, a boy with a troubled past but a kind heart. However, when Sunny learns that Keir’s brother and father are devoted racists, Sunny becomes angry and confused. When racial tensions in their home city of Bristol, England, ignite, they find themselves on opposite sides of the battle. Sunny and Keir then face off in a boxing match, one that Keir hopes will end Sunny’s boxing dreams forever. Told in chapters that alternate between the boxing match and the events leading up to it, you should read The Boxer because not only will you learn a lot about boxing, you will learn about the real racial tensions that exists here in the UK and the powerful impact it can have on the mental health of today’s youth.

Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

Jay just wants to have a lazy summer playing video games and hanging out with his friends. But when he learns that his cousin Jun has been murdered in the Philippines, he decides to travel there to find some answers.

What he does find is that Jun’s family isn’t willing to discuss the incident at all, specifically Jun’s father, who is the chief of police in the town where the murder happened. As Jay digs into Jun’s past, he learns far more than he bargained for.

You should read Patron Saints of Nothing because it’s a raw look at drug abuse, mental health, family loyalty and simply a damn good read that you won’t want to end.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Cameron Post has just lost her parents to a tragic car accident. Her first reaction is one of relief, because just hours earlier she was kissing a girl for the first time, and at least now her parents will never find out. She’s soon moved in with her conservative aunt and her grandmother. When her aunt finds out she’s been kissing other girls, she sends Cameron to an ultra Christian boot camp to “fix” her homosexuality. Once there, Cameron tries to discover who she really is, at a cost that could affect her mental health and everyone else around her.

There’s been a lot of debate out there whether this book is “YA enough” or not which I think is nonsense. I would not hesitate to give this to an older teen at my library. You should definitely read The Miseducation of Cameron Post because it’s one of the best coming of age stories out there, period. Cameron Post is someone I wish I had known in high school. If you ever grew up in a small town and felt like you were alone, this book should be required reading.

The Million Pieces of Neena GillThe Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith-Barton

Neena’s life is unravelling fast. Ever since her brother Akash has disappeared, she can’t quite get a grip on reality. She’s losing time, she’s forgetting things, her mind can’t focus. Everything depends on finding out more clues about how he vanished.

Her strict parents don’t know what to do other than make more rules to try and keep her home, keep her grounded, but all it does is push her away. As her life descends into a paranoid frenzy, Neena tries to finally discover the truth about her brother, and hopefully herself.

You should read The Million Pieces of Neena Gill because it looks at anxiety, paranoia, and other severe mental health issues in a unique way. Many teens who need help are hesitant to ask for it, a book like this can give them that extra push to talk to someone, and that can mean all the difference.