Where to begin?
Recently I came across the phrase ‘sick-lit’ in reference to books which deal with issues such as mental illness, cancer, suicide, self-harm, grief, and generally any book with a focus on sickness of some kind or another. The most well-known example I can think of is John Green’s The Fault in our Stars.
While media outlets have criticized these books for being harmful and for potentially encouraging copycat behavior from young readers, authors and readers alike have praised the books for creating a dialogue about tough topics and encouraging readers to seek help. However, as with most any issue, I would argue that the debate is not so black and white; there are grey areas in between the two extremes which need to be considered before any conclusions should be reached about the literature.
As a graduate of a Communication Studies program, I can attest to the incredibly vast amount of research in the fields of psychology, sociology, and communications which suggest that children are prone to the internalization of messages within media content. Essentially, what this means is that the accusations of media outlets claiming that these books could cause copycat behavior could be academically supported. Coincidentally, this same academic research could also backup the claim that young readers will be inspired to seek help for their struggles in much the same way that the characters in the books often do.
The common thread in this research is that the participants in the studies are generally children and preteens under the age of twelve. Personally, I would agree that many of the so-called ‘sick-lit’ books I have read would be inappropriate for this age group just as an R-rated movie would be inappropriate for a child (note: I’m not saying these books should be R-rated). However, this does not mean that these books would be harmful for all readers, nor does this research suggest that a more mature audience would be unable to learn positive lessons from such books.
While it is true that many books such as Cut by Patricia McCormick and Scars by Cheryl Rainfield deal with potentially triggering content, these books do not exist for the purpose of becoming a how-to guide for self-harm. On the contrary, these books are stories of hope and recovery which can help people who suffer with self-harm to reach out for support and stop hurting themselves. As someone who is over one year free of self-harm (WOOHOO!!!) I can attest to the fact that these stories can inspire readers to seek help (more about that later…). While I can also confirm that there were some books which I found to be triggering in regards to self-injury, I was determined to recover so I knew that I needed to be self-aware and stop reading when I felt as though a book was a risk to my mental health. Obviously, this is reflective of my own experiences and may not be the case for other individuals, but in my experience, sick-lit does not magically cause someone to want to hurt themselves unless they are predisposed to the behaviors (i.e. those who have a history of self-injury, trauma, abuse, etc.).
So, what draws readers to sick-lit? Again, speaking from my own experience, I was first introduced to the world of sick-lit after I had been suffering from an eating disorder and self-harm for quite some time. I have been an avid reader since I was a little girl and one day I decided to google search for books about eating disorders. Admittedly, this decision was most likely driven by the fact that so much of my life at the time was focused on my eating disorder. Consequently, I have to admit that at that particular point in my life, these books were not good for me; I was using them to learn tips and tricks for losing even more weight rather than using them to inspire my recovery. However, after two years of therapy I am much further into my recovery and even though I still struggle with disordered eating, I find these books are having a positive impact on my recovery journey. Rather than using these books to teach me how to hide my disorder and perpetuate my illness, I’ve started using the books to give me hope for recovery and show me that even though it’s a tough process, it is possible to completely overcome this disorder.
So, with all of that being said I will again reiterate the point that this long-standing debate over the impact of sick-lit books is not a simple cut-and-dry debate. As demonstrated by my own experiences, the books can be both damaging and helpful; it really comes down to the intentions and mental state of the reader. If an individuals is reading a book with the sole intent of learning how to get ‘better’ at being sick, they will surely find ways to perpetuate their struggles. However, if someone is looking for hope and a feeling of companionship/empathy, these books can just as easily serve this purpose.
The other side to this debate pertains to the books which do not discuss ‘self-inflicted’ struggles, but instead deal with illnesses such as cancer and depression or otherwise difficult topics such as death and grieving. Based on the articles I’ve read online, the most widespread criticism of these books is that they will cause readers to expose themselves to feelings of sadness and second-hand grief (for lack of a better word) for extended periods of time which could in turn cause readers to develop depression or emotional disturbances. In extreme cases, some individuals have even claimed that these books could cause so much distress that a reader might experience suicidal-ideation or actions.
To these critics I must respond with extreme skepticism and a raised eyebrow. I mean, really? Have you ever actually experienced depression? Because I can tell you that true depression does not come from reading a sad book (or at least this has never been the case for anyone who I’ve talked to about their experiences with depression). Sadness is sadness; it’s a normal human emotion. Depression is depression; it’s not normal and it is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, traumatic life experience(s), prolonged anxiety/emotional distress, and so on. Feeling sad every once in a while or reading a book in which you empathize with the distressing experiences of the characters is not going to cause depression (granted I’m not an expert, this is just my personal opinion).
With all of that being said, I would like to point out my own criticisms of this debate. Namely, while reading the articles which strongly oppose sick-lit I have noticed a trend in which the critics tend to criticize these books on the basis that the illnesses being portrayed are unacceptable in and of themselves rather than criticizing the way in which the authors present the material. In doing so, I believe that this anti-sick-lit mentality is a manifestation of mental health stigma and oppression poorly disguised as concern for the well-being of today’s youth.
For example, an article by the Daily Mail describes these books as distasteful, disturbing, morbid and taboo. The message to be internalized from this article is that individuals who suffer with self-harm, eating disorder, and suicidal thoughts or actions are disturbing and morbid rather than depicting the truth: these people are sick. Rather than praising these books for discussing tough topics and raising awareness about mental illness (something I personally commend certain books for), the Daily Mail instead pigeon-holes all books about mental illness as being disturbing and taboo. Personally, I find this offensive and oppressive. As someone who has struggled with eating disorders, self-harm, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder, I believe that there is a lot to be learned from these books. They talk about issues that society has stigmatized for decades and they allow readers to delve into the minds of the characters which can help to promote understanding of such illnesses and inspire compassion for the millions of individuals who are plagued by mental illness every single day.
Mental illness is a world-wide issue. It’s not going away anytime soon and if we continue to try smothering the issue to keep it hidden away in the dark corners of society then we will only see more and more people suffering in silence rather than seeking help. These books actively shine a light of the reality of mental illness and while there are undoubtedly some books which will do more harm than good, this does not discount the fact that there are hundreds of “sick-lit” books that could help millions of people. So why do we automatically shame something that could potentially save lives? These books are starting important conversations and making it okay to talk about issues that were previously shrouded in guilt and shame.
I am tired of feeling ashamed of my illnesses. These books have helped me feel less alone and they have given me the courage to speak out about my experiences and seek help for the illnesses that could otherwise threaten my life. I’m not afraid to fight the stigma anymore. It’s time for a more progressive approach to mental health in society. These books are an important part of the anti-oppression dialogue and for that I am extremely supportive of the purpose that they serve in society.
Let’s end the stigmatization of mental illness once and for all.