Trigger Warning: Suicide
“I’ve recently discovered that mental illness is in a lot of places. It’s in schools, friend groups, family trees. It’s not the stuff of CSI; it’s the stuff of friends and family. The more I look, the more I find it.”
- - the character of Natalie in The Art of Insanity
High schooler Natalie Cordova has just been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. Her mom insists she keep it secret.
Putting up a front and hiding her mental illness from her classmates is going to be the hardest thing Natalie’s ever done. It’s her senior year, and she’s just been selected to present her artwork at a prestigious show. With the stress of performing on her shoulders, it doesn’t help when Natalie notices a boy who makes her heart leap. And then there’s fellow student Ella, who confronts Natalie about her summer car “accident” and pressures her into caring for the world’s ugliest dog. Now Natalie finds herself juggling all kinds of feels and responsibilities. Surely her newly prescribed medication is to blame for the funk she finds herself in. But as Natalie’s plan to self-treat unravels, so does the perfect façade she’s been painting for everyone else.
Written from experience, this contemporary YA is a heartfelt and candid exploration into the shame surrounding mental illness, and offers an uplifting narrative where the protagonist doesn’t die at the end.
Bipolar disorder often gets negative representation in media, so when I heard about The Art of Insanity, I was excited to find a book with a protagonist from this lived experience who makes mistakes but also learns to accept her diagnosis and seek help. Even though the novel focuses on the experience of coming to terms with bipolar disorder, the journey is so relatable for all sorts of diagnoses in a world that stigmatizes mental illness and neurodivergence.
In the set-up of the novel, protagonist Natalie’s mother wants her to keep her diagnosis a secret from others, maintaining this perfect exterior image. This situation is so resonant with many of us in the mental health community, who may be surrounded by well-meaning but ultimately harmful cultures that fear stigma above all else, and believe maintaining a perfect appearance is the only way to survive. Natalie buys into this pressure, believing she must “overcome” her bipolar disorder with hard work, and no longer rely on her medications.
Her shame from her manic and depressive episodes—particularly her suicide attempt—prevents her from actively opening up about her diagnosis to others.
This was so heartbreaking to read, as I have gone through similar feelings of shame and inferiority over my limitations. I particularly resonated with her quote, “I started believing that depression isn’t even a real thing. That maybe people with depression just handle life worse than other people, and for some reason I couldn’t handle life correctly.”
Before my autism diagnosis, I assumed I struggled to keep up with an adult standard of “normal” because I was lazy and just needed to “work harder.” I broke down in burnout and sobs, sure I was just "being too sensitive” -- but also unable to see how I could try any harder than I already was. Only when I got an official diagnosis could I see that there was an actual reason behind my limitations, and that I might need help, and a reimagining of “normal” in order to stay healthy.
Natalie’s simultaneous desire and fear to tell her friends about her bipolar disorder is also incredibly relatable, especially as her friends have well-meaning but problematic responses to her coming out. They carry their assumptions of bipolar disorder with them and treat her differently, afraid they might “trigger anything.” They unintentionally are exploitative and gross with their desire to “stop mental health stigma” through putting Natalie front and center on Youtube, or as the face of a campaign.
They also at times make her mental illness about themselves, and how “hard it is” for them to come to terms with the diagnosis. Natalie’s responses -- to threaten them into secrecy, then later to deny her bipolar -- make sense in the context of the distorted picture she has of mental illness. Natalie is surrounded by family members and friends who model to her the misbeliefs that appearances are everything, and all her shortcomings make her unworthy of love.
But as her perception of bipolar changes, I appreciated seeing that she was “not ready to let [these friendships] go entirely,” seeing that her friends were trying to support her, “they’re just not great at it yet.”
As Natalie meets new characters, her misbeliefs about mental illness are challenged. It’s wonderful to see Ty, the love interest in Natalie’s story, affirm her as she is, and show her that even though her mental health journey may be challenging, she is worth it.
Natalie’s estranged father, who carries his own mental illness, stresses to Natalie how important it is to admit needing help, and that denying these needs can cause great damage to relationships with loved ones.
As an autistic person, I particularly loved Natalie’s friendship with Ella, and how Ella’s acceptance of her own autism models to Natalie that a diagnosis isn’t the end of the world. Ella could care less what others think about her outward appearance; her focus is on genuine relationships with others. Ella was absolutely relatable and a fun autistic character to follow, and I greatly appreciated the positive, authentic representation.
Ty and Ella’s lack of stigma over Natalie’s medications and diagnosis is in stark contrast to well-meaning but nonetheless harmful responses from other friends, and they help model a new way forward for Natalie in her mental health journey. As Natalie gains a more nuanced picture of her mental illness, she also gains a more nuanced and accurate picture of her mom and brother. While they are imperfect, it becomes clear their love for her is not dependent on her appearance, performance, or her diagnosis.
Narratively, there’s quite a bit going on in this story. I think some of the subplots could’ve been trimmed for focus, but I also understand why they’re all there. All the ideas in the story work well together -- they show different perspectives on mental health, to help Natalie come to a healthier understanding of her bipolar disorder and herself.
Meg Eden Kuyatt is a 2020 Pitch Wars mentee, and teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She is the author of the 2021 Towson Prize for Literature winning poetry collection “Drowning in the Floating World” (Press 53, 2020) and children’s novels, most recently “Good Different” (Scholastic, 2023). Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal and Instagram at @meden_author.