Right now, American culture is in a growth period. The onset of digital communication and rapid-fire media accessibility has opened a floodgate of access for individual voices to make themselves be heard, and among those who are currently striving for this pinnacle of true de-stigmatization are people who grapple with mental illnesses. And the arts are just following suit by lending a hand to that effort.
That’s the theory of author John Corey Whaley, whose new YA novel Highly Illogical Behavior joins a growing list of teen reads which feature central characters with mental illnesses, as to why this is such a relevant and impassioned trend for the genre.
“Mental illness is one of those stigmas that has hung on so tightly to its archaic roots,” Whaley told MTV News. “We live in a country where just a few decades ago, people with mental illnesses were misunderstood and were just locked in a room all day.”
Now, though, as Whaley believes, we may be broaching an “age of accountability where we talk about the things that we’re not talking about anymore, like diversity in books and in films and in Hollywood, and rampant police abuses of especially African-American people... Art reflects a common theme at that time. It’s reflecting that something that’s happening, that we’re all feeling even if we’re not conscious of it.”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the National Alliance of Mental Illness estimates that one in five American teens experience some sort of mental illness during their adolescence. So, today’s release of Whaley’s third book is timely indeed.
The novel centers on two characters: Solomon Reed, who suffers from severe anxiety and agoraphobia and has been self-confined to his home for several years after suffering a humiliating public panic attack, and Lisa, a girl who aims to “fix” him as a case study for her collegiate entry portfolio. It’s through their encounters that we find harmonization of those two realities made possibly only by effort and sincerity.
Whaley, who claims he’s drawn parcels of real-life inspiration from all of his books to date, was inspired to write the story after his own experience with anxiety.
“I’d always had some anxiety issues. I’d had panic attacks when I started teaching in my early 20s and sort of just dealt with it, saw a therapist, and got through it without anything big happening or any big medical decisions,” he said. But then the national press tour for his second novel, Noggin launched, and he started suffering dramatically increased episodes of panic attacks, which did not end with the tour’s eventual close.
“I had to come to terms with that and really deal with it. And the way that I deal with things is to write books about them,” said Whaley. “I wanted to write about how, not just unique and strange it is to have something like anxiety or agoraphobia, but also how individualized it is. A person doesn’t have to fit all the criteria of whatever a medical journal or a psychological profile says they do. They can just have these problems and be someone like Solomon, who very much chooses his own way of dealing with it.”
While Whaley estimates that 99.9 percent of the story is fictional and not drawn from his personal experiences with anxiety disorder, there are several moments throughout the novel when Solomon succumbs to panic attacks, and those, he said, could not be derived from any other place than his own reality.
“That’s something that I just had to go from my personal experience,” he said. “The varying degrees of severity, those were tough. It was really hard to figure out how to describe a panic attack adequately because for someone who’s never had one, they don’t know what that’s like at all... The goal of this book wasn’t to help people understand what it’s like to have mental illness. It was to illustrate that there’s no way to understand without knowing a person what it does to them because it’s such a unique thing. You could sit in a room full of 50 people who all have the same diagnosis, all of their stories and experiences are going to be different. And the way that they feel is going to be different. That’s part of the issue with how we talk about mental illness. We’re too broad with it. And we forget that it’s about people.”
It’s not just mentally well people who have trouble understanding illnesses such as this, either. Research shows that self-stigma – a consequence of societal prejudices – is also a complication of individuals coping with mental illnesses. John Corey Whaley hopes that his novel – along with some of the other recent and popular titles that bright narrative light to the individualities and complexities of the young mind – will offer readers a sense of understanding and community.
“It was just important to me to show that this one person’s struggle with that was very much his. It was very personal, and in doing that, hopefully, that’s what makes it feel personal to my readers. It’s not necessarily anyone else’s experience but his, but it’s showing that he’s not just a ‘crazy person.’”