It is with great pleasure I welcome Miriam Halahmy to Book Angel Booktopia today. The topic is a tough one so I am very grateful to Miriam for writing this post for me. Over to Miriam:
Should teen novels cover mental health problems?My new novel, Illegal, covers problems which include self-harming, the effects of using cannabis and becoming mute following a trauma. However, I did not set out to write a novel about mental health and teenagers. I set out to write Lindy’s story.
Illegal is the second novel in my cycle of three set on Hayling Island, off the south coast of England. With a rise in the number of cannabis farms being raided on the south coast, I asked myself, What if someone set up a cannabis farm on Hayling Island and asked Lindy to look after it?
At the start of Illegal fifteen year old Lindy’s family have been rocked by the sudden death of little sister, Jemma. Mum sits at home all day drinking, Dad goes down the bookies, the two eldest boys are in prison and nine year old Sean nags for food. Vulnerable and lonely, Lindy becomes drawn in the dangerous world of international drug dealing. Terrified that she will end up in prison like her brothers, she has begun to self harm.
Then fellow misfit, Karl, who rides around underage on a motorbike and is mute, turns up. Karl may not communicate much but he is intelligent and resourceful. Together they embark on a desperate bid to ensure Lindy’s freedom.
All of the mental health problems cited in my opening paragraph emerged as Lindy’s story unfolded. Her older brother Terrence offers her spliffs but he also tells her how his friend became schizophrenic after smoking strong skunk.
This storyline emerged from my work with troubled teenagers, some of whom had serious mental health problems as a result of using cannabis. One lad was even sectioned.
Once I had decided that Lindy’s story would have a background of drugs, I researched in more depth the effects that using cannabis can have on young people and highlighted the problems in the novel. I felt that this was an important topic to open up but carefully woven it into the fabric of the story, so that young people could make their own minds up. No preaching here!
The self-harming starts once Lindy realises she is trapped and being forced into dealing cocaine, too. She is convinced she will be arrested and the only relief she can find is from cutting herself. Young people who self harm report about the relief they experience from letting the blood flow. Lindy imagines all the bad blood of her family flowing out of her.
Fortunately Karl persuades Lindy to stop self-harming.
But Karl has his own problems. After a very traumatic incident and ignored by his parents, Karl has been mute for two years. He only communicates with his eyebrows or with the slogans on his T-shirts such as The Rules Don’t Apply to Me.
As a special needs teacher for 25 years, I worked with several young people who were mute, two in one school. Mutism is a difficult problem to resolve and can become a real phobia for young people who find it very hard to start speaking again. It needs highly specialised therapeutic input.
Illegal is not a novel which sets out to deal with mental health as the central theme. However, I do think that this is an issue which Y.A. novels can deal with effectively and sensitively. Tabitha Suzuma has written on this theme in two of her novels, Julia Bell deals with eating disorders in her novel, Massive and Phil Earle deals with the emotional difficulties of being in care in Being Billy . There are other teen novels which deal with mental health in adults in the family and these are important too. However, I believe that mental health is still one of the great taboos in our society. Mental health difficulties are experienced by many young people and it is important that the novels they read can provide convincing interesting characters who are suffering some of these problems, within the setting – as always – of a great story.