How to help teens tackle mental health issues with reading

By Melissa Hart

Anxiety almost destroyed my second-grader. At 2:45 each day, she staggered into her school’s corridor with holes chewed into her T-shirt and her curls twisted into knots. At home, she closed herself in her bedroom, where she sat for hours playing silently with her stuffed animals.

My husband and I adopted our daughter from foster care when she was a toddler. Six years later, she still suffered from separation anxiety that sent her into a heart-pounding, gut-writhing panic each morning when we left her in the classroom.

When she began to hide under her desk and scream, we rearranged our work schedules so we could teach her at home for two years. I designed curriculum around children’s novels that reflected her experiences as a biracial kid adopted from the state and struggling with ADHD and depression. Slowly, her self-esteem grew, and her anxiety lifted. These days, she skips home from sixth grade with her shirt and her curls intact, laughing and chattering about her day.

But what about kids who can’t—because of financial and/or time constraints—homeschool with a literary curriculum? What about parents able to provide their children with everything they need, ostensibly, and yet faced with a young person’s clinical angst?

The American Psychological Association estimates that fifteen million young people in the US suffer from a mental health disorder at any given time. Anxiety occupies the number-one spot. Depression often accompanies it, triggered by bullying, racism, homo- and transphobia, overscheduling, academic pressure, and crippling fear of everything from climate change to potential terrorist attacks.

Mental issues may manifest as alcohol or drug addictions. They may be biproducts of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Here’s the really scary part: more than half of kids with anxiety and depression don’t receive any treatment. In the 1980s, after my parents’ violent divorce, I was one of them.

At 14, I stood in the shower at dawn battling depression as I pictured the day’s classes and yearbook meetings and rehearsals and track practices and hours of homework. I coped with my father’s volatile household by becoming a straight A student who slept four hours a night. My parents had no idea how I struggled. I didn’t tell them. I believed I was too weak to handle the obligations my peers seemed to manage with grace.

If anxiety appeared on my bookshelf, it looked like Madeleine L’Engle’s bookish heroines worrying about boys, or Holden Caulfield wandering around Central Park obsessing over ducks. Later, I discovered Paul Zindel’s The Pigman and Paula Danziger’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit—darker stories of adolescent unrest. They became friends I turned to when insomnia struck.

Every generation is anxious—there’s always something to worry about. As a teen, I lay awake at night terrified of AIDS and Iranian airstrikes. But the internet and smartphones have raised the stakes. Every moment, technology launches threats to young people’s well-being from all sides. Hazards run the gamut from not getting invited to a party documented on Snapchat to Instagram cyberbullying to potential missile attacks by countries at odds with the US.

These dangers, and many more, appear in contemporary literature for tweens and teens.

Got a preteen with obsessive compulsive disorder? Give him Wesley King’s OCDaniel—about a high school football player struggling with mental illness until he’s distracted by an eccentric girl and a mystery. Have a teen with attention deficit disorder? Give her Anna Priemaza’s Kat and Meg Conquer the World about two girls—one with anxiety and one with ADHD—who form an unexpected bond over video games and a science project, but find their friendship complicated by boyfriends and online gaming relationships.

Jason Reynolds got the idea for his National Book Award finalist Ghost from a friend who—as a child—fled from his mother’s gun-toting lover. The boy and his mom hid in a convenience store just like Ghost’s uber-anxious eleven-year-old Castle Cranshaw whose father threatens to shoot him.

Reynolds followed the publication of Ghost with three other books in his Track series: Patina, Sunny, and Lu. Each features one of Castle’s teammates and their own issues, ranging from biracial adoption to parental neglect to friendlessness. In his novels, running isn’t a cure-all, but it’s one heck of a survival strategy to combat mental illness.

Another strategy is reading.

Cognitive neuropsychologists at the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress levels by 70 percent. Compare that to the study’s 42 percent reduction after taking a walk. (The implications for reading while walking haven’t yet been studied.)

Still, sometimes even Harry Potter can’t sooth a kid battling daily depression and anxiety.

Ohio-based Youth Services librarian Kerry Sutherland specializes in identifying books that appeal to multicultural and LGBTQIA+ youth, as well as those in restrictive custody or living on the streets. For kids affected by the opioid crisis, she recommends Robin Bridges’s ten novel Dreaming of Antigone, about a high school student with epilepsy whose soccer-star twin sister overdoses on heroin.

Adults who read Dreaming of Antigone or Ghost or similar novels get a crash course in what symptoms to look for in a struggling young person, along with a sense of how serious untreated mental illness can be.

Many novels illustrate how young protagonists find salvation thanks to mentors or peer confidantes or a passion. Running, sketching, poetry, basketball—these endorphin-producing activities offer distraction from sleepless nights and downward spiraling thoughts. They build a sense of self-worth.

These days, I love suggesting the perfect novel to my daughter, her peers, and other young people who might be dealing with a particular issue.

You can suggest books, too.

Type “middle grade novel” or “young adult novel” and a topic into a search engine. Look for books published in the last decade, and prepare to be amazed. You don’t have to be an author, a teacher, a librarian, or even a parent to offer a tween or teen a book.

Be bold. The book you suggest could save a kid’s life.



Ghost by Jason Reynolds

Booked by Kwame Alexander

In Your Shoes by Donna Gephart

OC Daniel by Wesley King

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

Eleven by Tom Rogers


The Battle of Jericho by Sharon M. Draper

Kat and Meg Conquer the World by Anna Priemaza

Dreaming of Antigone by Robin Bridges

10 Things I Can See from Here by Carrie Mac

The Place Between Breaths by An Na

All rights reserved. Excerpted from Better with Books by permission of Sasquatch Books.

Note: We receive compensation from purchases made through the Amazon links in this post.

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