I didn’t want to write about mental health. I knew it would be challenging. I knew the weight of responsibility would be difficult. I knew that when writing for young people, I really needed to get the hard stuff right. But most of all, I knew that it was too close to my heart. My youngest daughter was diagnosed with cancer, aged just sixteen, and suffered mental health issues post chemotherapy. She accessed the public mental health system and it was an eye-opener. In some ways, even a shocker. I didn’t want to write about mental health – but I had to.
My novel, Things I Know, follows Saoirse and her journey through the difficulties and traumas of mental illness, suicide, bereavement and eventual recovery. I suppose I was lucky (or unlucky) that I had witnessed my daughter’s journey and had a body of research already available. I also consulted professionals, teenagers, anyone who would talk to me about their own struggles and experiences. People wanted to talk. I think that surprised me. They wanted to talk about counsellors, good and bad, about medication, about the ongoing day to day struggle, about panic attacks, crippling anxiety, unresolved trauma.
I wrote. First came a sprawling first draft, followed by a few more. I knew in my heart that I was burying Saoirse’s story in another more palatable one. It took the gentle guidance of my brilliant editor, Siobhán Parkinson, to set me on course. Saoirse’s story needed to be told with honesty and truth. I couldn’t do ‘mental health light’ – this was too serious a story for that. I took myself off down to my mobile home in Spanish Point and rewrote the book. It took me six months and was the hardest piece of work I’ve ever done. I punctuated my days with European Championship football and the haunting music of Limerick rapper Strange Boy. I had more notebooks than Fergal Bowers. I knew Strange Boy’s lyrics off by heart and I could have refereed a Euro game. But I also had a book I was finally happy with.
“Artists should reflect the times.” Nina Simone.
As a writer this phrase will always be my mantra. More often than not, the times I feel compelled to reflect are tough and sad and challenging. Because that’s the way life is. But there’s also hope and humour and I think this is important. I was very conscious that there needed to be a sense of balance in telling the story, that while things seemed awful, there was always that promise and hint of love, family, friendship and support bubbling underneath. Because that’s true of life too.
I’m not an expert on mental health but I researched extensively to get the balance right. I wanted young people to see themselves in the story, to be able to relate to Saoirse, in all her mess and sadness and hope. That word again. Hope. We shouldn’t shy away from difficult themes, especially where young people are concerned. Things I Know is not Five Go Down To The Sea for Mental Health. It’s an honest and challenging read about mental health and the taboos surrounding it, about grief and how we deal or don’t deal with it, counselling, medication and professional help. If the voice and story ring true, young people will get it. They will understand and empathise. Young people are generally amazing.
But here’s the thing. Young people are also very smart. The dialogue needs to be spot on. No young person wants to read a book where all the characters speak like Little Lord Fauntleroy, where the setting has been stripped of the vernacular, of the current language and terms of reference of young people today. And this leads me to another tricky subject. Technology. How do young people communicate? Do they leave voicemails? (No, they don’t.) Do they text each other? (Again, no.) I had to familiarise myself with TikTok, Snapchat, voice notes. All of the ways young people communicate right now. I asked my friend’s teenagers about voicemail and they cracked up! It’s very handy to have teenagers to consult about these issues. They’ll set you straight.
Writing about mental health is a huge challenge and writing on the subject for young people heightens that challenge and comes with added responsibility. Research helps. Talking to young people and listening to their stories helps even more. It’s something we need to talk about. Especially with our young people. It’s something the Government needs to talk about too. In the 1980’s mental health services received 16% of the total health budget. In 2020, that had dropped to 6%. In the midst of a global pandemic. Mental health services are archaic and forgotten. There is no holistic approach. Medication alone is the chosen route. This is not the fault of the staff – they are under- resourced and over-subscribed. I didn’t want to write about mental health. I am so glad I did.
(c) Helena Close
About Things I Know:
18-year-old Saoirse can’t wait to leave school – but just before the final exams her ex-boyfriend dies by suicide. Everyone blames Saoirse – even Saoirse herself, who cheated on him with his best friend. She is shunned by her schoolmates and suffers unbearable levels of anxiety, which her useless counsellor does nothing to alleviate. Can she rescue her sense of self?
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