Depression in YA Lit and the Latin@ Community
This post was originally published on the Latin@s in Kid Lit site, but I am reblogging it here on my personal site because it’s such an important issue to me and is the central subject of my debut young adult novel. Here it is:
By Cindy L. Rodriguez
When I was 23 years old, I left Connecticut for Boston for what should have been an amazing experience. I had been recently hired to be a researcher for the Boston Globe’s award-winning investigative team, a dream come true for a young journalist. Over the next two years, however, depression slowly ruined me, although many people close to me never knew. I wrote about it for the Courant years later, when my mind was clear enough to make sense of it. Here’s an excerpt from that article:
“It was a rainy February night in 1997 when it became apparent that the depression was no longer a temporary emotion, but a disease that had invaded every part of my life. I had gotten into my car after work and cried all the way home. I can’t remember why. But I remember feeling like I was choking, like every nerve in my body was numb, like someone was squeezing my heart and everything good inside of me had been twisted around. I remember feeling hopeless.
“I knew then that this thing eating away at me would not just go away. For a long time, I was convinced it would. I believed that the admirable traits I inherited from those before me, like frankness and humor, would overpower this flaw.
“But days and months had blurred into more than a year. Fatigue had seeped into my bones and smiling became an effort — a false statement. I was tired all day and couldn’t sleep at night. I called into work sick with a flu I didn’t have. I pried myself off the sheets to make it in other days. My memory was deteriorating. I could listen to someone talk at length and not absorb a single word. I have no detailed recollection of certain events.
“Still, I thought the depression was situational. I was having a rough time at work, feeling beat-up emotionally and unappreciated. With my career being such a significant part of my identity, I felt shaken and unsure of my talents and abilities. Still, something inside of me was fighting back. I thought I could pull myself out of it.
“That February night, it was my mom who convinced me that this was bigger. That it was something that didn’t just belong to me — that I had inherited it. That it belonged to her and my grandmother before her. This was out of my control. ‘You are definitely depressed,’ she said. ‘Promise me you will see someone.’
“Six days later, I sat in a psychiatrist’s office, unsure of what to do exactly. Isn’t this a luxury for wealthy people? Or a necessity for people with real problems, like battered women? It was hard to justify needing this, being an otherwise perfectly healthy and successful 25-year-old. Yet, when I opened my mouth, a load of hurt poured out and the hour flew by.”
Ten years later, I was planning and drafting what would become When Reason Breaks, my debut novel about depression, attempted suicide, and the life and work of Emily Dickinson that releases February 10. While writing, I knew some readers would wonder why either of the two main characters–Emily Delgado and Elizabeth Davis–would want to kill herself. Nothing tragic happened to either of them. To some readers, none of their problems will be seen as good enough reasons to attempt suicide. They’ll want a big reveal moment: “Oh, she was (fill in the blank with a horrible experience). No wonder she’s depressed and suicidal. That’s a legitimate reason.”
When I was depressed, I didn’t think I had a right to be because, like my characters, nothing tragic had happened to me. I wanted to have a significant event, something I could point to and say, “Ah-ha, that’s the reason. If I address this one, obvious, horrible thing that happened to me, then I’ll be okay.” But I didn’t have that thing. Many depressed people don’t. And with the absence of something obviously wrong in my life, I pushed through the days for far too long, thinking what some people might think about my characters: my problems weren’t significant enough.
This kind of thinking can lead to tragedy because the depression goes untreated, which I’ve discovered happens often in the Latin@ community.
National health organizations report that Latin@s are at higher risk for depression than other minorities. Women experience major depression more often than men, and of students in grades 9-12, significantly more Latinas attempted suicide than their non-Latina peers. Yet, most Latin@s with mental health problems go untreated. A lack of access to affordable services and the stigma attached to mental illnesses are cited as barriers to treatment. Untreated depression can lead to suicide, which is the third leading cause of death for all people aged 15-24.
These statistics got me thinking about depression in young adult fiction, and I realized that in the books I’ve read, white characters are more likely to land on a psychiatrist’s couch. Most of the Latin@ characters in novels I’ve read fight through mild to severe depression without medical help, or they are somehow detained, in a treatment facility or group home, and the therapy is required. In When Reason Breaks, one of the main characters visits a doctor and gets medication, but doesn’t take it. She finally accepts real help after her suicide attempt.
As the Latin@ population continues to grow, I hope barriers are removed so that more Latin@s seek treatment for mental illnesses. I also hope more YA writers tackle the variety of mental illnesses and show characters of color getting help at some point instead of suffering through their pain. Maybe more teens will see themselves in these books and understand that their problems are significant enough, that they don’t need a “real reason” to feel the way they do, because in reality, depression is the real reason.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
National Hopeline Network: 1-800-442-4673
Suggested by book lovers online, here are some titles with Latin@ characters who struggle with different levels of depression.