Why children need books about mental health

Published on: 08 February 2023

The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair Author Hannah Foley shares why it’s important to write well about mental illness for children.

Author Hannah Foley and the cover of The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My ChairAuthor Hannah Foley and the cover of The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair

In the book world we tend to think of stories as a force for good. We imagine cosy bookshops and hot chocolate on rainy days. But they aren’t always.

I remember vividly learning that not all human cultures stigmatise mental illness. That means we aren’t born with images in our brains of knife-wielding madmen, crazy women in the attic and monsters raving wild on the moors. These ideas are learned through the stories we tell ourselves; stories that drive TV show plotlines, underpin pop song break-up tales and alliterate newspaper headlines.

I remember another moment; finally turning off ITV’s Downton Abbey in disgust at yet another character arc predicated on the unstable female stereotype. Many of these tired character tropes reached new heights in the Victorian era, an era equally obsessed and terrified by the pace of industrialisation and scientific discovery. In the popular gothic novels of the period, writers leaned into these tropes both to entertain and to try to make sense of what it meant to be human.

What’s the problem with spine-tingling tales of ghostly women in white that thrill and titillate? Or horrifying yarns of desperate monsters that shock and revolt? The problem is that mental health difficulties are common, and though societal attitudes to diagnoses such as anxiety and depression have improved, stigmatising views of illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder remain stubbornly stuck in the Victorian times.

"Views of illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder remain stubbornly stuck in the Victorian times"

These gothic images of mental illness close us down to the possibility that we might be mentally ill one day. We might need help, support and compassion. These stories stop us exploring the deep places of our own psyche and create a subset of humanity we believe we will never join.

But most importantly, these stories shut us down to difference and to the possibility that people who have experienced mental illness might have unique perspectives of enormous value.

Before I was a writer, I was a reader and half the compulsion of reading is the way certain books have swept me up, battered me about and left me standing on glistening new shores, gazing at the old world with fresh eyes. If you are lucky, this will happen to you first in childhood, and your reading habit will become unquenchable, always searching for the next book to provide you with doors through walls you didn’t know existed. Books can be a force for good.

When we write well for children about mental illness, we reveal walls and provide keys to doors. We show them that by grasping the dignity of all human beings, no matter how different, their own humanity is of value. We grant them worth. And people who have worth take care of their own wellbeing and that of those they love. They will seek help when they are ill and become wise listening to the stories of those who have been to the edges of the known world – and lived to tell the tale.

The Tiger Who Sleeps Under My Chair is available now.

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