I was an 80's kid (yeah, I’m ageing myself). But I think it’s important to point out that when I was growing up, mental health for children wasn’t the norm. I mean sure, therapists and child psychologists existed, but it wasn’t something available to most, unless you were privileged enough to afford it, or lived in a community where it was accessible.
At the time of my parents’ divorce, (when I was seven), I ended up moving to Spain to live with my maternal grandparents, and a few years later to New York City to reunite with my mom. With the divorce and the moving and losing my friends and family, I experienced what I now know as anxiety. But at the time, I had no name for the gurgling in my stomach, the tingles I would get on my arms and legs, the headaches from worrying and overthinking. I coped by excelling at school, reading, overeating and distracting myself with new friends.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s that I figured it all out, and it wasn’t until my 40’s that I actually started taking care of my mental health. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only 80’s kid who experienced this, and I’m pretty sure that there are still many kids today, experiencing the same thing.
Even though mental health for children is way more common these days, (at least in the US and other western countries), there are still kids who aren’t getting the help they need. This is mostly due to socioeconomic reasons, cultural and religious beliefs, and inaccessibility. In the Philippines for example, it’s a lot harder finding therapists who cater to children, and if you’re able to find and afford one, they are often not a good fit. Choices are quite limited.
In addition, some families would cope by going to church or prayer, instead, because of the stigma that sometimes goes along with seeing a mental health professional. In other countries around the world and even in the US and Canada, there are kids who live in rural environments, kids with parents who cannot afford putting food on the table, kids with families who believe in homeopathic cures, crystals and the like.
So even though mental health care is more common these days, there are still many children who are coping with their issues on their own.
That’s why it’s necessary for there to be inclusivity when it comes to mental health representation. Kids should be able to see themselves in books, and those books shouldn’t make them feel more alone than they already are.
When I first considered writing a middle grade book with mental health as one of the themes, I did a lot of reading. And what I discovered was that most of the books I was reading were “diagnosis” books, wherein the main character suffers from some sort of mental health issue, struggles, finds an adult to help, and eventually gets some sort of diagnosis from a mental health professional. While this is great and all, (and no, I’m by no means disparaging these kinds of books), I feel strongly that not all stories dealing with mental health should be “diagnosis” books. Because the harsh reality is that not all kids will get the help they need in their childhood years. Imagine being a kid with anxiety or depression and all you’re seeing in books is main characters who are able to get the help they need. If for whatever reason that kid is unable to get the same kind of help, wouldn’t that make them feel more alone? Of course it would.
So in my quest to write MG books dealing with mental health issues that weren’t necessarily “diagnosis” books, I felt it was crucial to always include trusted friends and adults. If my main characters aren’t getting professional help, it’s vital that they find people to open up to and lean on.
In my debut, HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SEA, my main character, Pablo, experiences debilitating anxiety. Like me, he is pretty closed off about what he feels, and isn’t comfortable confiding to his mom. To remedy that, I wrote characters (both young and older) that Pablo will get to know and eventually confide in—his next door neighbor, Happy, his homeschool teacher, Miss Grace, his mom’s boss, Miguel and Miguel’s assistant, Zeus. By opening up to these people, eventually Pablo finds the courage to speak to his mom about everything he is going through. He also finds solace in helping his new foster sister, Chiqui.
In my next MG book, ALL YOU KNEAD IS LOVE, my main character, Alba, has to contend with an abusive father and a cold and distant mother. She is shipped off to Spain to live with her estranged grandmother while her parents try to deal with their relationship. Like Pablo, Alba has a hard time opening up to people. So again, I felt it was necessary to include trusted friends and adults—her grandmother, Abuela Lola, Manny and Eduardo, the gay couple next door, Toni, her mom’s childhood best friend, Marie, the daughter of cook who works in her grandmother’s restaurant and Joaquim, Toni’s son. But besides trusted friends and adults, I also decided to give Alba a newfound passion that helps her deal with her emotions and heal—in her case it’s bread baking. This was something I felt was important to include, because it’s one of the hobbies that helps me de-stress in a way that’s sort of meditative.
The purpose of making my characters’ stories the way they are, is to hopefully give kids the courage to speak about their emotions and experiences, and to find ways of helping them cope with them better. After all, there is plenty of room in the market for mental health books that are “diagnosis” and “non-diagnosis” ones. Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we include stories of kids in all stages of their mental health journeys. Nobody should be made to feel more alone because they aren’t yet getting help from a mental health professional.
Tanya Guerrero is Filipino and Spanish by birth, but has been fortunate enough to call three countries home—the Philippines, Spain, and the United States. Currently, she lives in a shipping container home in the suburbs of Manila with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of rescued cats and dogs. In her free time, she grows her own food, bakes bread, and reads. Her debut, How to Make Friends with the Sea, was released on March 31, 2020, and her next book, All You Knead is Love, is slated for Spring 2021. She can also be found on Twitter and Instagram.