Stigma surrounds many issues of mental health and mental illness, contributing to an underutilization of needed interventions. Among the topics that tend to draw significant emotional reactions and stigmatizing responses is the issue of self-harm. In two recent novels, self-injury and suicide are addressed in generally nonstigmatizing ways.
In Hold Tight (2008) by Harlan Coben, high school student Spencer Hill is found dead on a rooftop after taking his own life. His parents question whether they missed the signs or could have done more. His best friend Adam regrets the hostility of their final interaction. But the novel does not depict the family as targeted by blaming or shaming reactions from the community as a whole; the suicide is portrayed as a tragedy but not as an opportunity for recriminations. When Spencer’s mother tearfully tells her husband that she had hoped the suicide would be “something more,” she does not do so from a place of shame but one of sorrow.
Coben also writes a bit about glamorization of suicide. Immediately following Spencer’s death, a social media memorial is created and frequented by fellow students with whom he had no close ties, everyone wanting to be a part of the story. Other characters explicitly reject these behaviors as inauthentic grief, and the novel overall shows the human cost of the loss rather than a shallow sense of intrigue.
Joanne Rock’s Promises Under the Peach Tree (2014) features an adolescent character named Ally who engages in self-harm for tension relief, without suicidal intent. She is terrified that she will be shunned if her self-injurious behaviors are discovered. Her fears are both deep and expansive, encompassing even the possibility of rejection within her family of origin. Refreshingly, her tendency of “scratching” is viewed by both peers and family with empathy rather than derision. Her efforts to seek help are supported and she is not judged “weak” or “crazy” for needing that help.
Ally’s grandmother, Mrs. Finley, a woman who struggles with her own mental health issues, is particularly vocal about the benefits of both medication management and individual therapy. She speaks sensitively about the scars from self-injury being woven into a larger narrative of Allie’s life and recovery:
“One day, you’ll figure out the right story to tell about your scars, too. You’ll be able to face the truth of a painful moment and not let it scar you all over again.”
Mrs. Finley also emphasizes the acceptability and even desirability of seeking professional intervention:
“’Some people need the help short-term. Others-like me-need ongoing help. My point is, if your hard days start getting harder and you can’t hold yourself back from the scratching, I want you to remember there are ways to deal with that pain other than hurting yourself.’”
Mack Finley is a man uncomfortable with mental illness and its manifestations. Growing up with a mother with bipolar disorder, Mack felt the disease as a secret shame and vowed never to have children in order to avoid passing on “that genetic gift.” His views begin to change when he is confronted with his niece Ally’s own struggles. He is able to see Ally as more than the illness, which allows him to look at his mother with fresh eyes:
“What if his mother was correct and new medications, therapies-hell, more acceptance (italics in original) of the illness from the people around her-could help her maintain the kind of focus and level emotions he’d noticed in her recently?”
Both of these novels show suicide and nonsuicidal self-injury being received by peers and family members without judgment or stigma. Characters are not judged badly for needing professional help, in fact help is recommended. These sorts of fictional works can incrementally contribute to a culture of more acceptance around mental health issues.