According to the WHO, on average, one in five adolescents worldwide was already struggling with a serious mental illness before 2020. Given that COVID-19 has posed an unexpected challenge to the mental well-being of most people, it is not surprising that several studies around the world now point to a further decline in the mental health of our youth. A decline that often goes unnoticed and untreated for years, in part because there is still a huge stigma attached to mental illness and many of those affected are reluctant to come forward. At the same time, in recent years there has been a boom in YAL that deals specifically with the topic of mental illness: more and more books featuring characters suffering from mental disorders are hitting our shelves. This paper aims to demonstrate how precisely these texts and working with them in the (EFL) classroom could help destigmatize the topic of mental illness and contribute towards raising younger generations to be comfortable with talking about mental health. In order to do so, I am pursuing three main research goals: First, I will explore, historically contextualize, and explain the meanings of and social mechanisms behind the stigma of mental illness, as well as give concrete examples of such stigma in today’s media and demonstrate how this can impact and potentially hurt teenagers. I will then illustrate (on the basis of comparatively and contrastively analysing a small sample of recent YAL, see list below) in which ways YA novels, through the themes they address, as well as the stylistic devices and narrative techniques they employ (such as metaphor and person-first narration, respectively), can act as counterforces to that stigma by fostering understanding and empathy, as well as promoting more inclusive and reflective language use among young readers. Finally, the paper focuses on practical implementation in the (English language & literature) classroom. By presenting a range of suggestions for concrete activities and ideas for classroom discussion, I also endeavour to provide teachers interested in broaching the topic of mental health with helpful resources.
Keywords: Mental health awareness, stigma, YAL, English language & literature classroom
Ariane Manutscheri is a university assistant (prae doc) at the Department of English and American Studies (University of Vienna), and member of the research platform #YouthMediaLife. She holds a teaching degree (Mag.a phil.) for the subjects English and philosophy/psychology. Her research interests include: children’s and young adult literature, mental health representation, fan culture and fan practices (especially fan activism), pop-culture, the power of storytelling for social change and the English language, literature & culture classroom.
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