Perhaps one of my biggest pet peeves with YA is the portrayal of medication, especially for things like depression and anxiety. Medication is almost always hated by the protagonist, or whoever is taking the meds. They always say something like “I don’t need to take it, my parents forced me into taking it, my psychiatrist thinks I should take it but I don’t need it.” I think those messages are really damaging, especially to young people who may feel connected to these characters.
Taking medication for depression or anxiety (or any other mental health problem) doesn’t make you weak. As a (relatively) neurotypical person whose brain is able to make the (relatively) right amount of serotonin, I am just as dependent on that serotonin as someone taking medication is. They may get their serotonin artificially, but neither of us is more dependent on it.
Like people who are diabetic and use insulin. They’re not weak for using insulin. No diabetic book character would ever say something like “my doctor thinks I need to take insulin, but honestly I’m fine without it” because they would not be fine without it. It’s the same for those with mental health problems and yet they’re viewed so differently.
Putting these messages in YA books just perpetuates society’s belief that those who take medication are weak for doing so. I think there are probably so many teenagers and young adults who read these books and what the characters say and internalize these beliefs.
I have a friend who had severe depression for years, and she always resisted getting medication because she thought it meant she couldn’t deal with everything on her own. When she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt and they put her on meds, she got way better. It was incredible and she finally accepted medication. She’s stable now and was able to stop using them, but I genuinely think that if she hadn’t had these beliefs promoted through the books she was reading, she wouldn’t have resisted medication so much.
Last year we had a guest speaker in one of my classes who had severe schizophrenia. She could remember the exact date and time (January 10, 2000, 4:15 pm) she started taking medication, and she hasn’t had a hallucination or delusion since. It literally saved her life.
I have another friend who has severe OCD, and other mental health problems including anxiety, depression, and potentially schizophrenia stemming from their OCD. Whenever they increased their dosage of medication, their OCD got more manageable. When they started doing rTMS, their depression got way better. Most days are still really hard because their problems are so complex, but they’re doing much better than they were before they were on medication.
Obviously I’m not saying everyone should be on medication. Meds can have side effects and don’t always work for everyone. They can be expensive, and there are some issues with the pharmaceutical industry
(although lots of antidepressants are relatively inexpensive). But sometimes they are needed. Sometimes depression is caused because someone’s brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin, or parts of their brain don’t communicate properly, or other neurotransmitters don’t function properly. These problems can be solved with medication, and sometimes only medication.
I wish more YA authors would realize how amazing medication, and therapy in general, can be. If they want to write a character with mental health problems, I hope they understand that what they write influences their readers, and promoting anti-medication messages (whether intentional or not) has real-life consequences. Authors can have such great influence, and could potentially help change the stigma around medication. I just wish more would embrace therapy and medication and help move the conversation to appropriate care.
Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts below, and let me know if you have any books that portray medication in a good light!