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Exploring Mental Health Issues Through Literature

Written by  Thursday, 19 December 2013
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Exploring Mental Health Issues Through Literature Photograph: Tristram Kenton Tristram Kenton/ Tristram Kenton

As we all remember from our own childhood, children’s tales traditionally have a theme embedded. A ‘moral of the story’ continued throughout, which firmly gets the message in place. Don’t fib, don’t be unkind, don’t talk to strangers etc. etc. Fast forward to secondary school and the literature is likely to have a similarly distinct message; respect yourself; stay away from drugs etc.

Secondary school literature is designed to reflect the fact that we’re all unique individuals with unique personalities – and that’s OK. Insights into mental health issues and Autism Spectrum Disorders are not always so widely covered however, which is detrimental considering you probably have students with ASDs and covert mental health issues in your performance group.

If you’re working with young people who are unaware of such conditions, or have staff members who are struggling to interact and understand students with mental health issues or ASD, then consider incorporating some of these plays and novels into your tutorial time. These choices are modern, engaging and explore issues that secondary school children should be increasingly sensitive to.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Novel and Play

Based on Mark Haddon’s popular novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time debuted as a play in 2012 – attracting rave reviews as a witty and insightful adaptation of the novel. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, it centres on 15-year-old Christopher, a maths prodigy and aspiring modern-day Sherlock Holmes who is presumed, although it’s not explicitly stated, to have Asperger’s Syndrome. This makes the book a great tool for discussing Autism Spectrum Disorders and elaborating on the complexities of such conditions.

When Christopher discovers his neighbour’s dead pet dog, he sets out to solve the mystery but uncovers numerous others along the way. With a unique view of the world, Christopher has to navigate his parent’s lies, deal with betrayal and separation and start to build his future simultaneously. The fact that Christopher’s condition isn’t explicitly named has been praised, with many claiming that this ensures people aren’t boxed into categories. Even Mark Haddon himself admits to knowing very little about Autism Spectrum Disorders and claims Christopher was actually inspired by two different characters, not a ‘traditional’ picture of someone with Aspergers.

In both novel and play form, The Curious Incident is ideal for students aged 13 and above, especially if you are trying to bring complex issues to light without categorising.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Another popular teenage novel that was transformed into a performance, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is both current, fresh and deals with the type of issues that will open students’ eyes to mental illness and diversity.

Charlie is a 15-year-old boy, a self-confessed wallflower and anxious about starting school without his best friend, who committed suicide the year before. Drawing on love, rejection, sexuality and abuse, The Perks of Being a Wallflower will appeal to students whilst delivering just the right level of emotional complexity.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a great book for reading as a group or enjoying as a film for a special treat followed by discussion and improvisation scenes.

The Bell Jar

Marking the classic novels 50th anniversary, this year sees new a brand new paperback version released, freshening up the long taught story of a young woman battling with depression. Although The Bell Jar can’t boast recent film credentials like some of these other suggestions, many students will benefit from being able to speak to their parents about a novel that was probably included on their curriculum.

Focusing on the struggles of depression, The Bell Jar showcases less than modern medical procedures, such as ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy), but this should add to students’ curiosity and allow you to discuss outdated attitudes to mental illness.

By using classic literature for more curriculum orientated tasks and current popular literature for enjoyment and learning purposes, you can open your student’s eyes to the complexities of mental illness and ASD without going to the extremes of burying your head or lecturing about the importance of understanding and acceptance.

Please feel free to suggest literature, plays and teaching styles that you have found valuable for sharing important messages with your students.

Victoria is a stage and education blogger for PG Stage, a stage and studio installation company specialising in schools and colleges.

Read 2156 times Last modified on Thursday, 02 April 2015

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