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10 Influential YA Characters Who Helped Shape Our Mental Health Journey

10 Influential YA Characters

There’s always been a stigma around mental health. Not only are we not supposed to talk about how we’re feeling or what we’re going through, we’re expected to showcase our best selves on social media — at all times.

It’s a Catch-22, right?

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Thankfully, the tides are changing. Rappers like Jay-Z are dropping bars about going to therapy, and TV series’ like “13 Reasons Why” and “To the Bone” are sparking conversation about everything from suicide to disordered eating.

Whether you’re dealing with something or know someone who is, these 10 books can help open up your worldview. These stories are well written and told so empathetically that readers of all ages and life stages will gain a better understand of what living with an invisible illness can be like.

Jasmine de los Santos

Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz (October 2016)

something in between

High school is hard, and cracking the formula for Ivy League admissions can be a mental breakdown in the making. But for honor student Jasmine de los Santos, it’s the only way to achieve the American dream.

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Her Filipino immigrant parents have sacrificed everything for her and her brothers, and folding under the pressure isn’t an option. So she works hard to keep her grades up, gets involved in a few extracurriculars, and works an after-school job in hopes of success.

When she receives a national scholar award, Jasmine’s parents are forced to come clean about their expired work visas. “Something in Between” follows Jasmine and her thoughts as she comes to terms with her parents’ betrayal and grapples with her undocumented status. 

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Characters navigate their journey of: stress, anxiety

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Jude Sweetwine

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (September 2014)

jude sweetwine

Jude and her twin brother Noah are inseparable. Then tragedy strikes, driving the family apart emotionally. A dizzying exercise in time and place, “I’ll Give You the Sun” alternates between the twins’ perspectives to tell the story of their lives.

At 13, Noah is learning what it means to be alone and to be in love all at once. Fast forward three years, and we find 16-year-old Jude living out Noah’s dreams at the art school he always coveted.

Filled with guilt, Jude’s strong sense of self has given way to superstitious rituals in an effort to make up for what she’s done. But will it be enough?

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Characters navigate their journey of: grief, love, identity

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Cath Avery

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (September 2013)

cath avery

With fandom at the forefront, “Fangirl” tackles everything from growing up with an absentee mother and bipolar father, to leaving home for the first time.

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Enter Cath. Being a Simon Snow fan is, quite literally, her whole life. If she’s not writing fan fiction, she’s chatting in the forums. And if she’s not in the forums, she’s probably rereading someone’s fic or working on a cosplay.

Whether your loyalty is to One Direction, Star Trek, or something in between, you’re probably familiar with the sense of belonging that comes with being a part of a fandom. For many, it’s enough to drown out the insecurities and inadequacies that can weigh down everyday existence. And for Cath, it’s a way to cope when everything comes crashing down.

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Characters navigate their journey of: grief, stress, anxiety

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will grayson

will grayson, will grayson by John Green and David Levithan (April 2010)

will grayson

According to will grayson, “mental health days” are little more than a luxurious day off for people who aren’t stuck with a chronic mental illness. After all, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions aren’t going to call in sick when you don’t have the energy to deal. Without reducing him to his condition, this co-written novel follows two characters of the same name when chance leads them to cross paths and navigate a turning point in each of their lives — without a magical cure-all to save the day.

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Characters navigate their journey of: depression, love, identity

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Lia Overbrook

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (March 2009)

Wintergirls

“Wintergirls” doesn’t shy away from the horrors of disordered eating, and it doesn’t attempt to minimize the mindset that can take someone there.

Disordered eating has always been at the heart of Lia and Cassie’s friendship, a constant competition to see who can lose the weight first. But when Cassie’s esophagus ruptures — a complication caused by bulimia — it ends her life and drives Lia deeper into the arms of her anorexia. What once gave her a sense of accomplishment is now the source of her self-loathing.

Although its portrayal has been criticized by some reviewers, this book is a far cry from glamorized thinspo Tumblr blogs or Instagram posts. It doesn’t trivialize these disorders as a female problem, but a health problem. Anorexia and bulimia are often marked by symptoms like dehydration and amenorrhea, and, at their worst, can lead to heart failure.

Characters navigate their journey of: grief, anorexia, bulimia, self-harm

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Laurel

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira (April 2008)

Love Letters

Laurel’s older sister, May, loved Kurt Cobain. So when Laurel is tasked with writing a letter to a dead person, Kurt is the first person that comes to mind. He died young, just like May, and his parents got divorced, too.

In writing to Kurt, Laurel finds a kind of catharsis that she hasn’t felt since her sister left her. She never turns the assignment in, but she continues writing to the greats — Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger — anyone who was gone too soon. Nothing is off limits, her letters running the gamut from first love to domestic abuse and sexual assault, as she processes what she’s gone through and begins to heal.

Characters navigate their journey of: grief, abuse, sexual assault, love, identity

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Annabel Greene

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen (February 2008)

Just Listen

A lesson in appearances, “Just Listen” reminds us that you never really know what someone else is going through.

Although she plays “the girl who has everything” in advertisements, teen model Annabel feels as though she has nothing. Her mother is out of reach, her sister is struggling with an eating disorder, and her friends have all but vanished.

Then Owen comes along. A loner by choice, Owen enters Annabel’s life at a time when she needs it most. Void of judgement or dishonesty, Owen helps Annabel learn how to let go of her expectations — and what others expect of her — to chart her own course.

Characters navigate their journey of: stress, anxiety, love, identity, sexual assault

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Charlie Kelmeckis

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (February 1999)

Perks of Being a Wallflower

This list would be nothing without Chbosky’s quintessential coming-of-age tale. In it we meet Charlie, someone who’s present but, for better or worse, always finds himself on the sidelines.

As he enters his freshman year of high school, his internal struggles are quickly becoming apparent to the rest of the world. He’s sad all the time, he doesn’t know how to interact with kids his own age, and his only form of solace is the letters he writes to an unnamed friend.

But then he meets Sam and Patrick, and his whole life unravels. This novel goes the extra mile to show that it doesn’t matter how old or how recent trauma is, its effects are long-lasting.

Characters navigate their journey of: sexual assault, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse, love, identity

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Holden Caulfield

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (July 1951)

The Catcher in the Rye

Yes, Holden is a foul-mouthed 16-year-old boy. But in many ways, he still has the innocence and naiveté of a young child. By far the most polarizing book on our list, “The Catcher in the Rye” chronicles a whirlwind adventure in adolescence.

On top of the usual teenage angst and anxiety, Holden is openly dealing with depression. His younger brother Allie passed away, his family’s a mess, and he doesn’t know how to navigate his newly unfamiliar existence.

Although his journey is colored by anger and grief, these feelings only propel him further down the road of self-discovery.

Characters navigate their journey of: grief, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder

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‘Jane Doe’

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (January 1892)

The Yellow Wallpaper

A precursor to Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” “The Yellow Wallpaper” explores the relationship between modern women and mental illness — perceived or otherwise.

In this short story, we meet an unnamed narrator whose story unfolds through journal entries jotted down in secrecy. It’s quickly revealed that our Jane Doe has been sentenced to a “rest cure” by her physician, who also happens to be her husband.

Her involuntary confinement leads her to question her own sanity and well-being, and before we know it, she succumbs to the madness. But was it ever there to begin with?

With current medical information in mind, we can surmise that she was dealing with postpartum depression. It wasn’t a problem of nerves or of psychosis, no matter how badly her physician-husband wanted to write her off as hysterical. Unfortunately, this mistreatment and misdiagnosis still happens — so trust your gut and don’t hesitate to get a second opinion.

Characters navigate their journey of: postpartum depression, identity, mania

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Not what you’re looking for? Scroll down to check out more of our favorite books.

We pick these items based on the quality of the products, and list the pros and cons of each to help you determine which will work best for you. We partner with some of the companies that sell these products, which means Healthline may receive a portion of the revenues when you buy something using the links above.


Tess Catlett

Now an editor at Healthline.com, Tess Catlett grew up in a home where reading was celebrated but secular characters were not. True to her Matilda roots, she'd drag her Lisa Frank backpack to the public library and fill it with anything she could get her hands on — including those "Harry Potter" books her mother was so worried about. Feel free to send her your YA recommendations on Twitter.

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