12 Women Of Color And Native Authors Open Up About Why They Write About Mental Illness
I was 12 years old the first time I considered taking my own life. Growing up, I was often told that mental illness was a white man’s disease, so when I first began to struggle with anxiety and depression, I felt like an outlier, an oddball, like something was wrong with only me… like I wasn’t wired how I was supposed to be. Books — in particular Yoruba Girl Dancing by Simi Bedford, about an African girl’s education in England and the microaggressions she encounters, and At Her Majesty’s Request by Walter Dean Myers, a nonfiction account of an African princess in Victorian England — comforted me, gave me language to discuss my struggles with my family, and ultimately, gave me the courage to continue living and seek help.
According to the World Health Organization, one in five adults experience mental illness in a year. Given those numbers, it seems pretty much impossible that mental illness is only a white man’s disease. Yet, the language passed down to me reinforced the narrative told in music, movies, and books: that mental illness is something white people, not people or color or Native people, experience.
As a writer and an editor and someone deeply committed to diversity in children’s literature, I’m always thinking about the long-term effects of not seeing yourself reflected in books. And when I talk about diversity in children’s literature, I often talk about mirrors and windows — terms first used by Rudine Sims Bishop. “Windows” are books that allow the reader a glimpse into other life experiences, and “mirrors” are books in which readers can see their own experience reflected. I had so few mirror growing up. And, even when books have mirrored one part of my identity, they left out other parts of it.
So, in honor of World Mental Health Day and the generations of women in my family who have struggled with mental health issues, I wanted to shine a light where it’s so rarely shown: to women of color and Native women, in particular young adult (and crossover adult) authors who are queens in their own right, writing mirrors that deal with their experiences with mental illness. These 12 authors are creating books my younger self would’ve adored — narratives that are showing teens today that it is possible to live and thrive with mental illnesses. Here's why they do it:
“I often write about mental health in my work because mental illness was never talked about when I was young. I was raised in the Midwest by two Southern black parents who grew up in farming families, and all I knew was a 'we’re too tough for that' attitude. The idea being that Black Americans have been through so much as a people that we can’t let something 'little' like mental health distract us — an attitude that’s all too prevalent in the Black community as a whole. After I moved to Los Angeles, I slowly realized how damaging that mindset is, and began to seek out books and movies and TV that openly dealt with mental illness. And when I was twenty-eight, I finally went to therapy myself. It’s important for kids — especially kids of color — to know that discussing mental health is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“'Ancestral trauma' is the idea that depredations committed against one generation affect many generations to come, usually used in reference to the horrors of Native boarding schools. That particular part of history doesn't apply to my family, but the general concept resonates since every single one of my hereditary lines runs through Oklahoma, formerly known as Indian Territory.
After our tribal governments were forcibly disbanded, one of my lines kept our Chickasaw enrollment, but all abandoned any cultural connections to their heritage. I personally became further estranged due to feuds between various relatives, exacerbated by a long and mostly hidden family history of mental illness that includes institutionalizations, suicides, and shock treatments — and ties directly to my own diagnoses.
My current manuscript delves into these twins issues, digging painfully into a history that both my family and society tried hard to bury. But if exposing these secrets to the light gives future generations a fighting chance at healing, it's worth it."
“I wrote my madness into my first novel, though not into my main character. Nix, from The Girl From Everywhere, is mixed race — half Chinese, half white, like me — but though she has her problems, she is very sane. Her father, not so much. He is bipolar, obsessive, addicted... and white. Readers write to me about him sometimes. Some of them hate him. I understand why, and I can accept it. He’s a bit of a villain — and so, sometimes, am I. But I don’t know if that criticism would be so easy to hear if I had put that part of me into my main character — if readers hated a young girl of color for having the same mood swings and wild emotions as he does. As I do. There is already too little compassion for girls like us.”
“I spent a long time trying to write around my mental illness instead of writing through it. I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder back in high school, and for years, I told myself that I was more than my mental illness or separate from it. I’m a crazy person, but I’m not crazy, I would tell myself. But it wasn’t until I wrote Wintersong that I understood that I am not just more than my moods; my mania and melancholy make up who I am and how I write. How I see the world. So instead of avoiding my bipolar disorder while writing, I purposefully left it there, letting my crazy seep into my protagonist’s every thought, every feeling, and every word. It wasn’t until I’d faced my mental illness monster on the page that I understood the monster was me, and it was worthy.”
“I’m frequently asked if my training and work as a psychologist informs my writing. The answer, of course, is yes, although I am cautious in this way—there’s far more danger in assuming knowledge than not. However, I’m rarely asked the inverse: Does my writing inform my clinical work?
Again, the answer’s yes. The characters I create are often struggling to understand themselves — navigating the friction between how they experience the world and the way that others see and treat them. When I revisit the books I’ve written, I can recall the musings or thoughts that inspired me, but I also see myself in ways I wasn’t previously aware of: my own adolescent grappling with isolation and existential despair; my experiences with depression and self-harm that I had no clinical frame of reference for. It’s all there.
Ultimately, I believe writing is reciprocity. The words we choose, the stories we tell — these aren’t one-sided actions. They tell us something about ourselves. And in telling them, they change us.”
“It’s always been hard for me to admit to anything that might be perceived as 'weakness.' As a woman of color, I often feel pressure to appear unbreakable—it took me a long time to admit my anxiety was very real and to seek help for it. When I wrote Evie Tanaka, the fire-wielding protagonist of Heroine Complex, I didn’t yet realize I had anxiety, but I gave her many of my secret vulnerabilities: the fear of messing up, of not being enough, of literally burning her life down. But I also made her a hero—someone who’s living life and trying to do her best and is an undeniably strong person working through all her stuff. Because of her, I try to be a little kinder to myself—and to recognize that sometimes “weakness” is actually “being human.’”
Tehlor Kay Mejia
"Writing with depression and anxiety is such a mixed bag. Some days it’s all I can do just to open my Word document and stare at it before closing it again. I think it’s so important to be kind to ourselves as women of color trying to create with mental health issues, and to be kind to each other. For me, having a community that understands those feelings of guilt and inadequacy in the face of our struggles has made all the difference. Finding people who will forgive you when you can’t, celebrate you when you can, and nudge you when you need it."
Emily X.R. Pan
“I didn't intend to write about depression. The early drafts of my novel were completely different. But books come alive when you're writing them—they develop minds of their own, decide for themselves what to be.
You’ve likely heard the expression “saving face.” In Chinese and Taiwanese culture the concept of “face” is much more intense: It comes from Confucianism, and especially focuses on “losing face.” The shame of that damages your ability to function within your community.
I was taught that mental illness is something to hide, to avoid losing face. I saw how the stigma made people I love afraid to ask for help. How my family lost one of our own to suicide.
Once I gave myself permission to write about my family’s experience, a door opened. I hadn’t realized how much I needed to talk about it. Writing became my way to help fight that stigma.”
“I grew up in a misogynistic, abusive Gujarati Indian immigrant family with mental health problems on both sides. But nothing was wrong with anything, of course. Unfortunately, I’ve spent most of my life recovering from the fallout of “nothing.”
There are, however, two positive things that came out of all this pain. First, I became a child & adolescent psychiatrist who is passionate about helping teens work through their struggles with talk therapy. Second, I began writing. Rap at first. It helped me heal. At some point I read my binder full of rap in a certain order. There was a story! That’s how Rani Patel In Full Effect was born. It was my story and that of other teens and women I’d treated. I figured the young adult world would benefit from more diversity in depictions of how dysfunctional family systems and other unfortunate life circumstances could lead a teen down a dark path of low self-worth, negative thoughts, negative feelings, poor decision making, self-harm, lack of identity development, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and inabilities in setting appropriate boundaries with people. Things I knew all too well. Not just from medical school and residency training. But from personal experience.”
“The first time I had an anxiety attack I was 15. My cousins convinced my mom to let me go to this Mexican dance club for the first time. As soon as we got there I saw a really hot guy and hoped he’d ask me to dance. He did. We got on the dance floor, banda was playing, his arms were around me, he asked me about myself and then… I couldn’t breathe. I’d gotten overwhelmed with the experience and the 'why did he ask me' question that would’t stop. In my mid-twenties I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety, but mental health isn’t something we really talk about in the Mexican community, though I know it worries my family, especially my mom. Most days I do okay, but there are days when it’s so crippling I can’t even pick nail polish colors. I also have bouts of depression, when it’s tough to will my body to move, but luckily I have friends and family who remind me to breathe and to get out of bed. And, of course, I have my writing which gives me a way to try and make sense of things.”
“Having an anxiety disorder and depression is difficult. Being an author in addition to that makes most days seem impossible. For instance, the industry is unpredictable, and it often leads to panic attacks. I didn’t even realize I had anxiety until recently, and suddenly it made sense why all of my main characters had some form of it. I think it was my way of trying to understand myself through someone else — discovering how they deal with their symptoms, what their triggers are, and how I could translate that into what I feel on a daily basis. Words have a healing power, and I found mine through crafting characters I could sympathize with.”
“I always tell readers that I think of Aysel (from My Heart and Other Black Holes) as an unreliable narrator. Not in the classic sense that she purposefully means to deceive the reader, but in a less decisive way. She’s an unreliable narrator because she’s struggling with depression, and depression makes you an unreliable narrator of your own life. Depression will tell you that you are unloved, even when you are deeply loved. Depression will tell you that no one cares, even when there are many people who care dearly for you. Depression will tell you are undeserving of happiness—you are deserving of everything. It took me a long time to understand this, I think, in part, because as a woman of color I’m constantly struggling with other societal messaging that feeds me lies in a different way, lies about my worth and the limits of my potential. That’s why it’s especially meaningful to me when young readers of color connect with Aysel. I want them to know others have walked this path, are still walking this path. We might be struggling, but we’re here. And that’s a victory in and of itself.”