Good Rep and Bad Rep: The Importance of Mental Health in Literature

Many of us have struggled or are struggling with mental health. When attributed to book characters, it can be written with the voice of many or none at all.

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An open book with light and sparkles coming out of it is on top. An open book with flames coming out of it is on the bottom. A white silhouette of a head with scribbled lines coming out of the head sits in the palms of a person's hand. Everything is set against a seafoam green background.

Authors have made many great strides to depict mental health in the most accurate of ways. They make the characters feel realistic, shine in their own light, and seem relatable. Those are the books with such amazing representation that we readers feel seen. But then there are those books that seem to skim the surface of mental health issues, resorting to stereotypical actions, emotions, reasoning, and so on. They forget that these issues are based in real life, that people dealing with mental health problems are real and want to be seen and heard, and not reduced to their disorders. That is why the Bookstr team has penned their examples of both good mental health representation and bad. So, read on to find out what made our list.

Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of Mental Health, Suicide, Sexual Assault, and Death.

Good Rep: Knot Now Know Ever by Elizabeth Knight

A profile of a woman with long hair and pink lips sits in the foreground of a bluish white background. The title is in large, pink letters across the center. The author's name is at the bottom in black letters.

The FMC has PTSD and severe anxiety. Knight’s portrayal of what that looks like from the sufferer’s POV and how they’re treated by others for having a mental health illness is flawless. These issues present differently for everyone; however, the therapy coping mechanisms, how the FMC is triggered, and the consequent events are so well developed and nuanced for that character. She doesn’t stray into different presentations of the mental health effects, which many authors do unknowingly because they’re the “typical” symptoms. It is very well written and researched. Add to that, she wrote the MMCs (this is a Why Choose Omegaverse novel) to learn to understand and recognize signs of distress and help facilitate a calming environment effortlessly. Hands down, it is one of the best representations of mental health and safe, healthy relationships.

Bad Rep: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

(TW: Mention of Suicide)

A black and white cover of a young girl sits on a swing. The title is set in rectangular caption boxes in white letters across the young girl. Everything is set against a gray background.

I dislike this novel for a few reasons, but mainly because it romanticizes teen suicide. Suicide is not a means of getting back at someone or multiple someones. Many teens commit this sad act as a means of escape, to remove themselves from depression, and yes, for the treatment they receive at the hands of others when they’re egregious. The portrayal of suicide by the MC, the subsequent secret bombs, and how she became the point by which everyone learns a lesson is inaccurate and, to some degree, negligent, as this was aimed at a younger audience. I don’t believe this was the intent of the author, but children are impressionable, especially those already going down this road. They’re not going to ask another person or adult if they think the cause and effect of Hannah’s suicide in 13RW is steeped in any accuracy or truth.

Kristi Eskew, Editorial

Good Rep: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

A dim blue cover with the feet of a woman wearing open-toe heels and a small buckle across the ankles makes up the foreground. The title is in white letters next to the woman's legs. The author's name is at the top in pink letters.

This book sheds a pretty accurate light on the darkness and suffocation of depression in a relevant way, even in 2024. I mean, it should. Plath herself struggled with severe depression until the very last day of her life.

Bad Rep: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Large, white title words cover in white cover a man's face, which is set as the background of the cover. The author's name is under the title in the large, white lettering.

It relies too much on harmful stereotypes of psychopathy and personality disorders, among other things. Part of the problem is it predates many psychiatric advancements in understanding conditions like borderline personality disorder. Still a memorable thriller, though.

Erin Dzielski, Editorial

Good Rep: Food: The Good Girl’s Drug How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings by Sunny Sea Gold

A cocktail glass holds colorful jellybeans and sits in the center of a white background. The title is in green and pink lettering at the top. The author's name is in pink lettering at the bottom.

The author talks about her own experiences with mental health and how that affected her relationship with food. She talks very in-depth about the different kinds of eating disorders, especially the ones that are less talked about, such as emotional overeating and binge eating disorder. Most people aren’t aware that mental health can correlate with eating disorders. There are many sources referenced in the book, as well as a list of resources/support groups across the US. This book helped me understand my own relationship with food.

Bad Rep: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn/Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L. James

On the left is Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" with a black cover and light, gold scribbles on it. On the left is E.L. James's "Fifty Shades Trilogy" with a silver tie set against a stark black background.

In Gone Girl, the book really demonizes Amy. Nick isn’t the only victim in the story. It’s a good psychological thriller, though. In the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, the whole story romanticizes controlling relationships that can be abusive, toxic, or both. Anna and Christian’s story is not a fairytale. For some people, it can be hard to separate fiction from reality, so both of these books can have a very negative influence on people, especially those who are already in abusive and/or toxic relationships.

Christina, Graphics

Good Rep: Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute by Talia Hibbert

A quirky cover of two teens, a young girl and young boy, walk beside each other in forest sits against a pink background. The title is pink and white in large letters above the teens. The author's name is in dark letters above the title.

Bradley, the MMC, has OCD and mentions it frequently throughout the book. It’s rare that authors write male characters dealing with their mental health, especially when it comes to Black men. Bradley isn’t a character that “typically” has mental health issues in books—he’s popular, sociable, sporty, and academically competitive. Usually, characters with mental illness in YA are the loners, the outcasts, or the wallflowers, which is a problematic stereotype. It was refreshing to see the popular jock character so open about his mental health. And Bradley has a great support system—his family, his friends, and his frenemy, the FMC Celine. His OCD is never treated as an issue to solve or a detriment to any of his goals; it’s just a part of him, and that normalization makes it a good representation to me.

Bad Rep: All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

(TW: Mention of Suicide, Suicidal Ideation)

A lot of people related to this book and found it to have great mental illness representation, but I can’t say I’m one of them. I thought that the characters were reduced to their mental illnesses, lacking any complexity or nuance that people with the same diagnoses have. I also don’t like how the book talks down on people who take medication to manage their mental illnesses, saying that they are somehow lesser people for not staying unmedicated. It’s a dangerous and ignorant message to imply, especially to a YA audience.

A blue cover with yellow, light blue, and pink sticky notes in rows of two travel down the center. There's an image of a black bird and a purple flower on a yellow sticky note and a pink sticky note. The title is printed on the sticky notes on the left side one word at a time.

This is more of a personal, subjective note, but I don’t like how the book is so negative. The premise offers this sense of hope of the main characters saving each other, but the end is bleak. And the journey to the end is equally disappointing since it seems like Violet and Finch’s relationship relies on them not getting better. Stories can have sad endings, but it feels almost irresponsible for a book dealing with such a sensitive topic to end the way it did.

Abby Caswell, Editorial

Good Rep: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky crafts a deeply personal narrative that resonates with readers on a profound level, capturing the essence of teenage struggles with raw authenticity. Through the eyes of protagonist Charlie, we’re invited into a world where mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and trauma are not merely plot points but lived experiences. Chbosky’s portrayal of Charlie’s inner turmoil feels achingly real, tapping into emotions that many of us have felt but may struggle to put into words.

A yellow cover with a small black and white image in the top right corner. The title is in tiny brown letters at the top. The author's name is in large, white letters at the bottom.

As we journey alongside Charlie, we witness the impact of past trauma on his mental well-being and the courage it takes to confront and heal from it. What sets this novel apart is its compassionate portrayal of seeking help as Charlie and his friends navigate therapy and support systems with honesty and vulnerability. Through their journey, we’re reminded of the power of empathy and connection in overcoming mental health challenges and the importance of reaching out for help when needed. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is more than just a story—it’s a beacon of hope, a reminder that even in our darkest moments, we are not alone.

Bad Rep: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The title makes up the foreground written in formal pink letters set against a stark black background. The author's name is in light gray lettering at the bottom.

Having delved into Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I’ve grappled with how it tackles mental health, and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. While it does give a raw and personal look into Esther Greenwood’s battles with depression, there’s this nagging feeling that it’s missing something. Esther’s journey hits close to home for me, echoing some of my own tough times, but it also feels like it’s painting mental health with too broad a brush. Plath, drawing from her own life, takes us on a journey through the depths of despair and the struggles of seeking help, but it also feeds into stereotypes and stigma. Following Esther, I couldn’t help but question the way therapy and medicine were portrayed; it felt grim. While The Bell Jar speaks to a lot of people, me included, its take on mental health is a bit of a mixed bag, reminding us to think critically about how mental illness is shown in stories.

Trish G, Editorial

Good Rep: Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews

The red and gray roof of a house is the foreground of the cover. There's a woman's face peeking from a top window with open shutters. The title and author's name sit atop the peak of the roof in white letters.

I had to read this in school, and I remember it being disturbing. However, it seemed like it expressed trauma within a family accurately. The children are forced to stay in the attic by their mother, who is supposed to be someone who provides security and trust to a child. The family was rich, but the story also depicted how money can’t protect you from mental health issues that may ensue from abuse. It shows how vital nurture and socialization are during everyone’s childhood. It’s also highly controversial, though.

Bad Rep: Willow by Julia Hoban

The face of a young girl looking down makes up the cover. White cracked lines travel vertically down the cover. The title sits at the top in large, white letters. The author's name sits under the title in tiny, pink letters.

I vaguely remember reading this book, but one thing that always stuck with me was the main character, Willow, struggling with severe depression from the loss of her parents. She suffered self-harm, but what made this novel such a horrible representation was her recovery process. A young girl reading it who could potentially relate may be led to believe that the only way to cure her depression would be to fall in love, get in a relationship, and lose her virginity during a vulnerable mental state rather than recovering from learning how to love herself or other healthy means. The book also oversimplifies the recovery process. While relationships can help with depression, they don’t necessarily make it go away magically. I don’t think there was enough depth in the novel.

Talia W., Graphics

Good Rep: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

When I think of mental health representation that feels true, this book immediately comes to mind. Anderson takes readers through the lives of two teen girls dealing with eating disorders. Lia is anorexic, and her best friend Cassie is bulimic. We move through Lia’s perspective and get a sense of how both she and Cassie dealt with their disorders from mental, emotional, and, of course, physical points. They are in competition with one another to see who can be the thinnest, but the results, unfortunately, end tragically for Cassie due to her dealing with bulimia. And as Lia recalls memories of Cassie while in search of where her friend passed, we get a raw, authentic view of how Lia dealt with anorexia. It isn’t romanticized or overdone.

An icy blue cover with a young girl's face frozen behind the icy foreground. The title is in lowercase black letters across the top. The author's name is at the bottom in large, white letters.

Anderson takes care to show us the small moments that can trigger Life-changing events. She makes sure not to trivialize what Lia is going through. And even as Lia works to recover in the end, we see that it’s not an easy road taken lightly. I appreciate this book because, even as heartbreaking as it is, it makes sure to take readers through a journey that has such real highs and lows mixed in with a glimmer of hope that doesn’t feel forced or phoned in. It’s a true testament to how to correctly portray something as serious as eating disorders and mental health.

Bad Rep: Cut by Patricia McCormick

(TW: Mention of Self-Harm)

There’s not much to say about this book other than what I remember when I read it wasn’t that good. The premise follows a young teen girl named Callie as she deals with depression through self-harm. She’s sent to an institution where she finds other young girls dealing with mental health issues and decides to go mute because she wants nothing to do with the other girls or their problems. She’s upset that she’s even there in the first place. That is fine and understandable. Where this book goes wrong is how surface-level it is, never really going into details about Callie’s inner issues. She mostly comments on the other girls but never reflects on herself.

The title sits across the center in large, bold, black letters. Red lines cross through it. The background is made up of black and red splotches against white. The author's name is under the title in black letters.

We don’t truly get to know her well enough to sympathize with her and her experiences, her feelings—outside of anger and annoyance—her reasoning, etc. Nothing is truly fleshed out, leaving readers empty. Callie feels like a character stuck on a page waiting to be told how to feel and act, with no real depth to back up any of her emotions and actions. Even worse, the book simply ends with no real resolution. Dealing with the subject of self-harm is already difficult, and McCormick just didn’t handle it with care, knowledge, and understanding.

Quiarah B/ Vphan, Editorial

Good Rep: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

(TW: Mentions of Sexual Assault)

A young girl's face sits behind a skinny tree with leaves in gray. The title sits at the bottom in lowercase letters. The author's name sits at the top in small, black letters.

A young girl named Melinda was sexually assaulted the summer before the start of her freshman year. She calls the police but doesn’t tell anyone why, and people are angry at her because she won’t say what happened. Through her art class, Melinda slowly processes what happened to her and finds her voice and identity again. I read this book when I was in middle school and again while I was in high school. I also love the movie. It is a beautiful story of how you can overcome your traumas, find people you can trust again, and speak up to defend yourself. It also shows some of the issues rape victims deal with in the aftermath and the importance of taking things seriously.

Bad Rep: The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

(TW: Mentions of Sexual Assault)

A woman wearing a red dress sits on a white bench in the snow. The author's name is in large, red letters across the top. The title sits at the bottom in smaller red letters.

The book is a historical romance following an unfortunate girl named Heather Simmons. She is sexually assaulted multiple times by her love interest, and they are forced to marry when she is with child. Throughout the book, they start to form a love for each other and end up happily ever after. I barely got through this book, and it made me cringe to see all that Heather went through. While we know it was different back in the day, it seems irresponsible to romanticize rape in this manner.

Jazmine, Social

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