Discussion: portrayal of medication in YA

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!

xx Ally

22 thoughts on “Discussion: portrayal of medication in YA

  1. THIS IS A VERY GOOD POST. I have very debilitating anxiety and when I started taking meds five years ago it literally changed my life and it made me regret all the time I spent buying into the stigma against medication – which is absolutely perpetuated by the media, and I think YA in particular is a huge offender in this regard. I think it’s because a lot of YA novels focus on a message of self-acceptance, and meds are seen as relying on a crutch rather than looking inside yourself and examining the root of your problems – which of course is total bullshit. Therapy, yoga, meditation, physical activity, etc.; these are all great and productive outlets, but at the end of the day, if my brain isn’t producing the right levels of serotonin, there’s not much of an alternative to medication for this specific problem. And young people being told that it’s shameful to rely on medication, or treating meds like a bandaid solution, is just so hurtful and counterproductive. Meds aren’t for everyone, but they are a real and life-saving solution that needs to be considered by anyone with serious mental health issues. Rant over… suffice to say I AGREE and this is something that really gets my goat. I’ve literally never seen meds treated sensitively in a YA novel and it makes me very sad for all the teenagers this stigma is hurting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. THANK YOU RACHEL. Obviously it’s good to promote self-acceptance, but I wish that self-acceptance could include medication. Introspection can only work so much. And for people with severe depression or anxiety or other mental health problems, it can be hard to accept yourself when you’re so sick. Like if you’re depressed and telling yourself you’re worthless, you can’t just be like “okay well this has to stop, maybe I’m not so bad.” But medication can help stop those thoughts and make self-acceptance easier!!! I just wish it was represented better, especially in YA which is the age group who are likely just starting to develop mental illnesses and need to be told that it’s okay to use medication.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post so much. I’ve noticed the anti-medicine attitude that pops up in YA (and sometimes regular adult) books and it irks me. As someone who has been on medication for 15 years now, I can assertively say that there is NOTHING wrong with having to be on medication. The stigma surrounding medication for mental health needs to go away. If someone is diabetic and needs to take insulin everyday we don’t judge them. This is no different. Without medication I probably wouldn’t be here, either. It’s helped bring me out of a very dark place so that I could begin to function and take the steps needed to move towards recovery. (Multiple times)

    I read “Made You Up” recently. It’s a YA novel about a girl who is schizophrenic. Overall, the book wasn’t too bad. I hated the fact that they made the protagonist so anti-medicine, though. She’d just stop taking it because she felt like it, which I found absurd.

    I understand that meds aren’t for everyone and that some people may choose not to take them, but I don’t think we need to represent it in such a negative way. It’s damaging.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I just hate the stigma surrounding medication because it has actual consequences. And mental health is basically the only place in health where people are judged for taking medication, which is so frustrating.

      Ugh that’s so frustrating. Especially for schizophrenia, which I think is so underrepresented in general, but especially YA. But also medication can be SO IMPORTANT for schizophrenia. That’s so absurd that the character would just stop taking it? Like you shouldn’t change your medication without speaking to your doctor?? Because they’re a doctor and they know what’s best??

      Thanks so much for reading and agreeing! It’s so damaging to have such ideas perpetuated.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree completely on this! While yes, I understand that we may have a tendency in our society to over-medicate some things — but youth depression is not something we should be *under*-medicating! When I was in high school & college I had friends who struggled with this, too. Part of my friends’ problems was that they were prescribed the wrong medications, which is another issue entirely, but between the wrong meds and the stigma against meds in general, it was an uphill battle to get them the help they needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! And for sure, some things are over-medicated, but people, especially youth, definitely need access to medications that can help them! And depression is such a big issue in society. It’s the leading cause of disability in the developed world and one of the most costly illnesses, so if it can be treated effectively with medication we should be supporting that! And people need the correct medication too, but they can’t get that if they feel there’s a stigma against it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. YESSS This post is so important! Luckily I’ve never been affected by books in this way but books do have a huge impact on the messages they portray, and you’re completely right, there is nothing wrong with having to take medication for a mental health problem, just as there’s nothing wrong having to take medication for a physical health problem!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is such an amazing post! My best friend and I were actually talking about this a couple weeks ago, she’s a type one diabetic and I’ve got anxiety and depression and she gets so worked up whenever someone doesn’t know how to talk me when I get bad. She’s like, they’re both an illness/disease that are equally as valid, no one gives her trouble for taking insulin so no one should give anyone trouble for taking meds for mental health issues. Luckily I’m not at the point where I’m on meds, but that conversation really stuck with me because it’s so accurate. Some peoples brains don’t produce the right chemicals just like diabetics can’t produce insulin, and theres no shame in either. It’s so frustrating and it really needs to change in fiction, especially the stuff aimed at teens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Dee! It’s just so frustrating how people don’t see that they’re not different. Sometimes it’s just chemical imbalances, which are fixed by medication. I just wish there was better representation in books!


  6. I have a dissenting opinion. I think it is legitimate for a character to hate taking medication. Some people do hate medication and feel that it was harmful in their lives. However, it is true that YA portrays the use of medication in a negative light too often. We do need to see more characters who like their medication and who see positive results of it in their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

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