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5 Novels That Explore Mental Health

Date Published: 07/11/2017
Contact: If you think you need help with mental health issue you can contact Beyond Blue or Kids Help Line.
Article author:  Helen Stower

This post started partly because I have just finished John Green’s new novel, Turtles all the way down and partly because at a meeting at school, our Principal reminded us that mental health and wellness must be a growing priority in our care for students and ourselves.

The mental health of young Australians is something we all need to be aware of.  Beyond Blue informs us that:

  • Around one in 35 young Australians aged 4-17 experience a depressive disorder. 
  • One in seven young Australians experience a mental health condition.
  • One in fourteen young Australians (6.9%) aged 4-17 experienced an anxiety disorder in 2015. This is equivalent to approximately 278,000 young people.

The need for understanding and awareness around mental health issues is of prime importance to all those who work with young people in our country.

Fiction books are one avenue that young people can attain an insight into the world of others or find reflections of their own experiences.  In particular, contemporary realistic fiction is a genre that provides an avenue for teens to explore topics that are modern and relevant to their lives.  The diversity of the topics and the points-of-view they present provide opportunities for young people to explore their identity, understand their society and culture and build empathy for others.  Mental health is one such topic explored in this genre.

Here are five books that explore issues pertaining to mental health.  We recommend them for our Senior Fiction readers, ages 15+

"Like millions of others, I take medication to help treat my mental illness. Treating chronic mental conditions must not be stigmatized."

@johngreen, Twitter

'Turtles All the Way Down' by John Green

I have to premise this by saying that I am a huge John Green fan.  Not only do I believe he is an excellent author of YA fiction, I also love the vlog channel he works on with his brother, Hank, and his charity work.

For information about the plot of the novel and for in-depth reviews visit the entries on Goodreads.

My take on his latest novel Turtles all the way down is that it is disguised as a mystery novel but is essentially an exploration of what it is can be like living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  The main character, Aza Holmes, suffers from the torment of thought spirals that on a bad day will dominate her every waking moment.  The obsessive thoughts impact both her life and her relationships. The novel dispels generalizations and romanticized notions of OCD and the reader is left with no uncertainty about the pain caused by Aza’s invasive and repetitive thoughts.

AND John Green knows what he is talking about.  He has been open and honest about his own OCD.  He has been open about this in social media and in a vlog entry in July of this year, the author discusses his own life with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how this provided inspiration for the novel.


“Your now is not your forever.” 

John Green, Turtles All the Way Down

'All the Bright Places' by Jennifer Niven

This book is about Violet and Finch.  Violet is living in the aftermath of a recent tragedy and Finch is living with Bipolar Disorder.  The two meet on the top of a bell tower when both are contemplating suicide.  Although it is unclear about who saves who, they both survive.  They are then thrown together again to complete a school project and a friendship begins to grow.

This book gives the reader a very real insight into what it is like to live with Bipolar Disorder – from being in the grip of mania to the depths of depression.  It seeks compassion not judgement and highlights just how fragile mental health problems can make a person.

The movie adaptation of All the bright places starring Elle Fanning is scheduled for release in 2018.


“The problem with people is they forget that most of the time it's the small things that count.” 

Jennifer Niven, All the Bright Places

'Beautiful Monster' by Kate McCaffrey

Beautiful monster tells the story of Tessa.  After a grief event in her family, Tessa starts to rely on her friend Ned.  Ned is her support and ally and encourages her to strive for perfection in all things – grades, sport, dutiful daughter and weight. The problem is, Ned is not a friend but an eating disorder.  After treatment, Tessa knows that he is not real but her battle to ignore him is enormous.

In this novel, author Kate McCaffrey explores the effects eating disorders can have.  She portrays the consequences of such illnesses and the reader understands how disastrous these can be for the person suffering and for their family and friends.


"I have seen first hand the effects eating disorders can have on girls, in particular — from a mild obsession with body shape to the compulsive and obsessive disorder that Tess demonstrates. The far reaching consequences can be disastrous."

Kate McCaffrey, Freemantle Press Teaching Notes

'Beautiful Mess' by Claire Christian

Beautiful mess takes two broken characters and explores how they deal with some hefty issues including mental health, depression, suicide, grief, first sexual experiences and bullying. These characters are 15-year-old Ava and 17-year-old Gideon.

Importantly, the book leaves the reader with a way forward, highlighting the importance of therapy to recovery.  The proposition made is that with therapy, a ‘broken mess’ can become a thing of beauty.



"I wrote Beautiful Mess as a love letter to all my young people who so desperately wanted content that spoke about the things that they honestly and really wanted to discuss."

Claire Christian

'The Impossible Knife of Memory' by Laurie Halse Anderson

Many young people are trying to live in homes where a family member is afflicted with mental health issues.  The impossible knife of memory tells the story of Hayley Kincain who has led anything but an ordinary childhood. At the point where the novel begins, Hayley is entering her senior years in high school. Prior to this she has been travelling the roads with her father in his truck, living an unconventional life while her Dad tries to escape the memories and post-traumatic stress that haunt him as a returned soldier.

In her return to a ‘normal life’, Hayley makes friends with Gracie and then meets Finn. Both have the potential to be good for her if Hayley would let them in. Hayley is, however, afraid of this – if others see what is really going on with her Dad, his mental health, inability to keep a job, use of drugs to anaesthetise his pain, his neglect of Hayley’s needs and his violent episodes, then her new, ‘normal life’ might be threatened.

As things spiral out of control in Hayley’s life, it becomes impossible to put this book down so worried are you for both Hayley and her father.


“Yes it is, because you can only be brave if you're scared.” 

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory


If you think you need help with mental health issue you can contact Beyond Blue or Kids Help Line.

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