Talking to Teens about Mental Health through Literature

Image credit: pebbled on deviantart

TW: mental illness, suicide, sexual abuse

Recently my school has seen an explosion in the number of students who report struggling with a variety of mental health challenges, but especially anxiety and depression. I have had more students than ever being hospitalized, more than ever missing a significant amount of school due to anxiety-related school avoidance, more than ever requiring a non-traditional classroom experience. I’m still a relatively new teacher, but my veteran colleagues agree — our kids are struggling.

They’re not alone. I’ve heard my anecdotal evidence echoed by the anecdotal evidence of other educators across the state and region. This past fall, the New York Times ran a significant article titled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” describing precisely this phenomenon.

Regardless of its causes (which I don’t pretend to fully understand and I’m sure are numerous and complicated), as a teacher, I see its effects every day in my classroom. It is in this context that I just concluded my unit on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a unit which I teach through a lens of psychological criticism and trauma theory.

I’m sure you’ve read it (I hope you have). Its highly original 17-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield tells the reader about a weekend in his life when he got expelled from yet another prep school (his fifth), ran away to NYC, and hid out in a “pervy” hotel, all leading up to a mental breakdown that lands him in a psychiatric facility. Teaching this text through a lens of trauma theory means that I frame it for my students around the original trauma that sets Holden adrift, the loss of his little brother Allie to leukemia.

In the lead up to this unit, I worried about whether teaching this text in this way would be triggering for any of my students, if I was running the risk of re-traumatizing them by discussing subjects like the loss of a loved one, suicidal ideation, and child sexual abuse, which I already know some of them have experienced (and I’m sure many others have that I don’t know about). In some cases I contacted home to give parents advance notice. I geared myself up for complications, difficulties, a resurfacing of a painful past or present.

Here’s what happened instead.

Instead, for many of my students, rather than re-traumatizing them, it seems to have done the opposite. It seems to have liberated them. We learned, safely, together about trauma theory, the stages of grief, PTSD, and repression. We applied these concepts to Holden in a variety of activities. We also examined Holden’s coping strategies, both good and bad: avoidance, seeking out a trusted adult to talk to, substance use, spending time with family.

Today we finished reading, and they journaled about whether this book, now published almost 70 years ago, is still relevant to teens today. Overwhelmingly, they said yes. Here are a few of their reflections:

The Catcher in the Rye is a very real and raw book… which is why I appreciate it so much.

I found it extremely helpful that from reading I could work out how to feel better using or not using certain methods I had seen before.

If anything there should be more books with a teenager struggling with their mental health and then showing their improvement so people these situations are true for have representation and can be given hope.

In my opinion Holden is just a regular teen that has been through so much and because of that he has issues, but at the end of the day who doesn’t have any issues?

Although we did not directly discuss some of the personal issues my students are facing, what’s clear to me in reading these journals is that they took the concepts they learned in our class and applied them to their own lives. They saw, in some cases, a character whose struggles reminded them of their own. They found, in reading Holden’s story, that they aren’t alone in their anxiety, depression, or grief — Holden accompanies them. He speaks to them across time, a voice from the past that maybe offers them some hope for the future.

Even for those students for whom mental health is not a pressing reality, encountering Holden in this compassionate way can help to break through some of the stereotypes or misconceptions they may have about mental illness, to normalize talking about teen mental health, and to foster empathy for those different from themselves.

Honestly, what more could a teacher ask for? This, exactly this, is why I wanted to become an English teacher: to use literature as a channel to talk with young, vulnerable people about things that matter — in this case, mental health. This is the best, most important part of the job.

What texts have you found helpful to talk to kids about mental health?

Additional reading:

“Teenagers Speak Up on Salinger”

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