Monday, October 29, 2012

Discussing Mental Illness in Teen Fiction with author Cally Jackson of The Big Smoke

Please welcome author Cally Jackson from the "down unda." Her book, "The Big Smoke" is commercially available right now and this is the first stop on her blog tour. She wants to talk about some research she did regarding a topic that all of us can probably relate to.

Mental illness in teen fiction

Thanks for hosting me, Michael!

As Michael said, I’ve just launched my debut New Adult novel, The Big Smoke, which is extremely exciting, but I’m here to talk about a serious issue that is covered in The Big Smoke – mental illness.

Although things have improved a lot in the past decade, mental illness is still quite a taboo topic in many societies. I’m Australian and my experience of this is mostly home grown, but from what I’ve read and seen, the reluctance to discuss mental illness is also paramount in other parts of the globe.

I’ve read a number of books that deal with cases of extreme (and often sudden) bouts of mental illness, but very few that feature characters struggling to manage less intense mental illnesses on a daily basis. When I wrote The Big Smoke, I decided this was something I wanted to challenge. So I gave one of my main characters, Ceara, a generalized anxiety disorder, which is one of the many obstacles she must overcome to find happiness in this new phase of her life, studying at a city university away from her country home.
An excerpt from the first page: 
What the hell was I thinking, going ahead with this crazy move? I should’ve put an end to the idea the first time Mum mentioned it. But I didn’t, and now I was moving into a share-house with Cindy Carter and Robert Grey – two people who thought I was as worthwhile as a smear of dog shit on one of their shoes. 
My breathing hitched up a notch. I tried to get myself back under control but felt like I was edging towards hyperventilation. The last thing I needed was a panic attack.

I slid down the wall between the stacks of boxes and concentrated – breathe in, breathe out. Why wasn’t my daily anxiety medication helping me deal with this? Maybe I needed to up the dosage.

Shit – the tablets were still in a pocket of my suitcase. I crawled over, grabbed the tablets and hid them inside a pair of socks, which I buried underneath my neatly folded clothes. I didn’t want to risk Mum finding the tablets now. How typical that would be – I manage to hide them for all this time, only for her to discover them the day before I move out.
Why did I inflict a mental illness on Ceara? Because the number of teenagers on anti-depressants continues to rise, but you rarely see these teens represented in fiction. I wanted to create a character that those young people could relate to. A character that I could relate to.

I’ve suffered with mental illness on and off throughout my life, but it doesn’t define who I am. In many ways, I believe I’ve become a happier, less judgmental person because of my experiences with mental illness. And I thought that could be an interesting character trait to explore in fiction. Hopefully Ceara’s journey is one that many young people can connect with, and maybe The Big Smoke will help, in some small way, to break down the silence around mental illness.

What about you?

Have you read any Young Adult or New Adult books that deal with mental illnesses like anxiety, panic and depression? Do you think it’s an area that needs to be explored more in fiction or do you think it’s adequately represented?


Thanks so much for doing a guest post, Cally. I found the above gifs and thought they'd work with the theme of what Cally is talking about here.

Buy The Big Smoke on Amazon for $2.99 HERE.
Checkout Cally's Goodreads page HERE.
Visit Cally's Blog HERE.


  1. The amount of teens on drugs for something is rather frightening. I have a friend who is bi-polar and takes several drugs just to maintain.
    Good luck, Cally!

  2. It alarms me that so many young people are mentally ill. I think it's great that you address this.

  3. I love John Green's Will Grayson, Will Grayson. The story is told from two POVs and one of the Will Graysons suffers from depression and takes medication. I think it really opened my eyes to how each day, activity, relationship, etc., feels to a person with mental illness.

  4. If it's a subject matter that people can relate to and come away from the story with a better understand, then I think that's more than a worthwhile story to write. Wishing you success the The Big Smoke. Mike's review of it made me pay attention.

  5. I agree - a teen character with mental illness would be very relatable for a lot of kids.

    In every book I've written so far, at least one of my characters has had at least a mild variety of mental illness - even my children's story. It wasn't intentional. Probably says something about me, huh? :)

  6. Thanks so much for hosting me on your blog today, Michael!

    Alex and Em-musing - you're right. It is alarming how many young people are mentally ill. I hope that The Big Smoke helps them to know they're not alone!

    Brinda - I haven't read Will Grayson, Will Grayson, but it sounds like I should remedy that!

    JL - thanks so much. Glad Michael's review of The Big Smoke caught your attention. :-)

    Tonja - what was the mental illness in your children's story? It sounds interesting and I'd be keen to see how you presented mental illness in a way that was suitable for children. :-)

  7. Mental illness can be hard for others to understand because it's something you can't see. Those who have never had it think one should be able to control their anxiety, depression, etc. and just be able to snap out of it. So in general I think a lot of people just don't under stand mental illness because it isn't talked about very much, so I think it's good you have this issue in your book.

  8. In my book, Rise From Darkness, the MC has suffered from severe depression and anxiety. I've received some email from teen readers who appreciated this. I respect and appreciate anyone who suffers from mental illness, and applaud you for providing a character these teens can relate to.

  9. Bravo for you! As Cindy said, those who don't deal with it think a person can just snap out of it. There is still such a stigma to what is essentially a chemical imbalance.

  10. YA started to showcase more real stories about teens right around the late 1970s.

    Robert Cormier dealt with mental illness and depression in many of his YA books - and he got in hot water with schools over the content in the stories.

    Which made me want to read them even more!

  11. I think if I were a teenager these days I could be diagnosed with a mental illness or two. Life certainly hasn't gotten any easier for kids in recent years that's for sure.

  12. If counseling was not so expensive or if health insurance would cover it, a preemptive session for all students would help the concerned parties understand who needs help and would help take care of the problems early on.
    Best of luck with your project Cally and Michael Thanks for introducing Cally.

  13. To be fair, i read a lot of spec fic, so in general i'd say it rarely shows up there. But there was quite a bit in Heidi Ayarbe's Compromised, which focuses on homeless and runaway teens

  14. I agree there's still a lot of stigma attached to mental illness. It scares people who don't know how to deal with it. And I think it's a great topic for a young adult/new adult novel. Maybe a reader won't feel quite so alone anymore.

  15. There's mental illness in my family. I think it's important for there to be fiction not only for the people directly impacted by mental illness, but for others to gain understanding.

  16. I think a lot of your readers will connect with Ceara through her anxiety disorder. These kinds of mental illnesses are not going to go away so talking about them is important. Congratulations on your book launch and I wish you much success! (:

  17. I don't know about other parts of the world, but in the states medicated mental illness is on the rise not because mental illness is on the rise but because we want to medicate everything. And I could go on, but I won't.
    At any rate, mental illness is not often dealt with in fiction except from the position of the mentally ill being a villain of some sort, so seeing it from another perspective is certainly a good thing.

  18. Interesting stuff, Cally!

    I host Mental Health Monday on my blog and focus on various mental health issues. I'd love to have you guest post some time, if you're interested!

  19. I think it's inspiring that you decided to take this issue head on in your writing. Taboo subjects, particularly mental illness, are out of our comfort zone but not out of reality. Highlighting them helps people to deal with that reality.

    Congratulations and good luck with The Big Smoke.


  20. I wish mental illness could be talked about more openly and I wish it was treated with as much respect as any other body ailment. Great for you for tackling this topic, Cally.

  21. Recent economic cuts here in the USA concern me with the aid being cut to some service agencies. I think there's still a lot of misinformation about mental illness out there.

  22. Cally, how very courageous of you not only to write about mental illness but to talk freely about your own experiences with it. The closest thing I've ever read in a novel about mental illness was I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, but as I recall that dealt with schizophrenia and young adults in an institution. Dealing with panic, depression in everyday life -- no, I don't think it's been dealt with that well in many novels.

  23. As Brinda mentioned way above, WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON is a wonderful book on this topic. Ellen Hopkins also includes mental illness in a few of her books as well. IMPULSE comes to mind first.