It is crucial to teach mental health awareness to children, especially because they often struggle with navigating and expressing their emotions. As much as we would love to believe that our youngest are exempt from mental health concerns, the CDC finds that one in six children ages 2-8 suffer from a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder, with children from low-income families or lack of parental and community support being at the highest risk. Children with mental health issues may struggle academically, have frequent outbursts, experience difficulty making friends, or repeat actions obsessively fearing “bad” consequences, according to the NIMH. These problems may be of genetic origin, that is perhaps a family member had a similar disorder, or they may be a sign that a child is going through challenges at home.
Books are an excellent way to normalize mental health difficulties in a world that frequently stigmatizes them, as well as to provide trauma-informed learning opportunities. Here are eight excellent middle-grade books and young adult (YA) novels that focus on four mental health challenges that many students face.
Anxiety and Fear
According to the CDC, roughly 8% of children between the ages of 6 and 17 suffer from anxiety, with rates much higher among children with behavioral difficulties and depression. For children with coexisting mental conditions, such as OCD or autism, anxiety can be complicated by sensory processing difficulties, intrusive thoughts, or frequent compulsions.
For middle-grade readers with anxiety, Five Things About Ava Andrews, by Margaret Dilloway, may be a good choice. Ava is dealing with anxiety at her school, stemming from her heart condition and her separation from her only friend, Zelia, who moved across the country. When her writing is noticed by other students in an improv club, Ava joins and slowly discovers her new passion. But there are challenges ahead: as her friendship with Zelia is strained, Ava discovers that she may need to use her words for a very important cause. The story has a light, witty tone, with a charming protagonist who struggles with self-doubt and worries about the future. Students transitioning from elementary to intermediate school will find a relatable analog in Ava, making this a good introductory choice to teach mental health and wellness to a middle school class.
Among young adult books, Turtles All The Way Down, by John Green, remains a perennial favorite. Aza Holmes, the anxiety-stricken protagonist, constantly deals with worries about germs— more specifically, the thought that she could be “infected” by others, or “infect” them in turn. But when a local billionaire disappears, Ava’s friend Daisy becomes obsessed with finding information in the hopes of scoring a $100,000 reward. This requires Aza to get in “touch,” physically and emotionally, with an old friend. This book handles its protagonist’s mental struggles in a grounded, realistic manner. While the ending is bittersweet, it continues to treat Aza with sympathy and agency throughout the entire story, and teens will be as interested in her struggles with anxiety and OCD as they are in the mystery.
Depression and Sadness
Depression is among the most common mental illnesses, with roughly one in six students suffering from a depressive episode each year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, only half of these students receive adequate treatment. Because many books, such as Thirteen Reasons Why, can glorify suicide, it’s important to give kids access to middle-grade and YA books that teach mental health awareness in a realistic, supportive manner, with an emphasis on recovery and self-discovery.
Some Kind of Happiness, by Claire Legrand, is a middle-grade book that focuses on the topic of depression. Finley is sent to live with her extended family for the summer as her parents work on their strained marriage. Struggling with a feeling of overwhelming sadness she describes as “poison,” she copes by writing about Everwood, a fictional woodland kingdom. But when she discovers that her creation is real – and is dying slowly – Finley realizes that to save Everwood, she’ll need to first save herself. Finley’s struggles with depression and a tumultuous family life will ring especially true to young readers undergoing upheaval related to divorce. Lovers of dark fantasy will especially enjoy it.
Darius The Great Is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram, centers on clinical depression and how it impacts family relationships. Protagonist Darius Kellner is an Iranian-American teenager who travels to meet his mother’s family for the first time in Iran. Despite being a nerdy, Americanized teen, Darius does manage to make a close friend in Iran; but his struggles with clinical depression threaten to bring everything down. Adolescents will relate to Darius’s struggles with emotional outbursts. The book also centers on Darius’s relationship with his father, who also struggles with depression.
Youth violence and physical abuse affect thousands of teens every year. According to WHO, 42% of boys and 37% of girls face bullying and abuse from peers, and homicide is the fourth leading cause of death among teenagers. It’s important, however, to recall that many teens causing the abuse and violence may be struggling with stress or trauma at home, and adequate support can help them find ways to manage their anger in a healthy way.
For middle-grade readers struggling with anger, Scrawl, by Mark Shulman, might be a good fit. Tod Munn, a teenage bully who was caught vandalizing school property, is placed in detention by a counselor who insists he keeps a journal. Reluctant and sarcastic at first, Tod slowly reveals the difficulties of his home life, his struggles with money and finding food, and the lack of close friendships in his life. The story doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat Tod’s story, but he does slowly emerge as a sympathetic character. His rebellious nature will endear him to younger readers while also showing them that they are capable of growth, as Tod slowly begins to gain control of his emotions. This is also a good option to teach mental health strategies, such as journalling, to students.
Furious Thing, by Jenny Dowham, is a rare YA novel that focuses on anger in a female protagonist. Alexandra is dealing with intense anger, which she frequently takes out on her classmates and family, especially her mother’s fiance John. But she’s angriest at herself: she’s convinced that if she was a better daughter and a better person, her family’s increasingly tense relationships would be solved. The story tackles themes of familial abuse, self-hatred, and how anger and rage can be symptoms of larger problems. Readers will be intrigued by the gradual reveal of Alexandra’s living situation and hope for her escape.
Trauma and Loss
Students may have faced trauma in their lives through no fault of their own. Affected children might benefit from one-on-one stories to teach mental health coping skills. Providing trauma-informed education to a class will also help non-traumatized students understand their classmates better.
The Line Tender, by Kate Allen, is a middle-grade novel that centers on trauma’s impact on twelve-year-old Lucy Everheart. Five years ago Lucy’s mother, a shark biologist, passed away suddenly. Lucy is recovering, exploring marine life in a seaside town with her friend Fred. But when another death opens new grief, Lucy needs to dive into her mother’s journals to resolve her pain. The story focuses on how deaths impact communities, and how children can deal with the deaths of parents and friends alike by focusing on the deceased’s lives.
Older readers who are ready for more difficult books might appreciate The Way I Used To Be, by Amber Smith. Protagonist Eden McCrorey is a shy band geek when her brother’s friend sexually assaults her in her freshman year. The book follows Eden’s gradual spiral and eventual recovery, centering around difficult topics such as her use of sexuality and drugs to reclaim herself. The book also explores why Eden is reluctant to tell others about her assault, due to the social pressure she faces to keep quiet. Teens may find this book challenging to read, but it may lead readers to empathize with sexual assault survivors. Teens who have struggled with similar troubles may find its realistic and sympathetic depictions of Eden’s difficulty coping with the aftermath relatable. And for those unfamiliar with trauma responses, it may be a good resource to teach healthy mental health coping strategies to students.
Teachers and parents can choose from many books to teach mental health awareness to the children in their care. For students with mental health disorders or a history of past trauma, it’s important that they receive access to high-quality, trauma-informed learning resources.
At Educate. Radiate. Elevate., we provide students from underserved communities in Illinois and Texas with no-cost tutoring that covers academics, test preparation, and soft skills. But we understand that a student’s basic physical and emotional needs must be satisfied before adequate learning can occur. Research shows that trauma can often undermine students’ abilities to perform academically. Our tutors are trained in trauma-informed teaching practices, which we view as impactful for all students, whether they have experienced trauma themselves or they interact with others who have. E.R.E.’s tutors are positive role models for their students, allowing them to feel more secure in their learning journeys. To help further our mission to uplift our most vulnerable youth, become a donor or volunteer. If you know a child located in Illinois and Texas who would benefit from our services, nominate a student!