The Portrayal of PTSD in Young Adult Literature
A critical thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of Masters of Fine Arts for Children & Adolescent Literature
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Professor Mary Logue
Introduction to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD has recently become relevant and is now a topic of conversation in world cultures. This mental illness is depicted in American YA novels through the use of the most common surface symptoms. Because of this the narrator’s character is ignored or generalized. The character is only identified by her illness. By eliminating the character underneath the mental illness the whole person that suffers from PTSD, in reality, is often misrepresented and unsympathetic to the reader.
Young adults often refuse to seek treatment for mental illness due to its stigmatization and the mass negativity any such a diagnosis has. “Teenagers are less likely to ask for help or actively engage in treatment for mental illness because of the negative stereotypes and hostile environment,” Rebecca Danielle Pfister states in her capstone project for American University. Additionally, PTSD is portrayed in pop-culture as an illness only experienced by soldiers. Though this has been disproven by the Science News article “Emotional Wounds,” by Laura Beil, written in December of 2014, the still prevailing belief, is that soldiers are the only victims of PTSD.
Soldiers suffer from the trauma and hardships of war, resulting in behavioral changes for those that served. Their personality, their perspective, their understanding of the world has been altered so drastically that they become different people to those closest to them. “You are living with a completely new person who may or may not still resemble the person you knew prior to the symptoms,” says an army wife. This perspective of a wife or child of a soldier is not represented in young adult nonfiction. The stories are about the battles and the men that fought, while the aftermath and internal struggles are brushed aside. Young adults cannot see this internal struggle, therefore books are the tools to teach them how to understand the trauma and illness they cannot see.
National Geographic published the article, “Revealing the Trauma of War,” by Caroline Alexander. It was written about the treatment veterans go through in order to cope with society and their families. One artistic approach had veterans create masks that represented their mindset as it recorded their experience in voice clips. The masks represent their unseen wounds and helped them form the words to explain their own struggles. This integration of print, pictures, and sound caters to the technologically prone young adult audience.
When studying and reading many young adult novels, I have found that the generic representations of PTSD symptoms do harm to those that read them because they are uneducated and unsympathetic understandings of the illness’s issues. The symptoms, defined by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), are intrusive memories and flashbacks during moments that stimulate a repressed fear; avoidance of people, places and objects that remind the person of the trauma; dissociation from body or present events; de-realization, thinking the world is not real; hypervigilance where the body is always anticipating danger.
These symptoms are portrayed generically in young adult literature when the narrator is: not talkative, absent-minded, defensive, reactionary, and numb are used when the narrator has a lack of self-identity or a death wish. With these example authors can use this conflict to explain uselessness within the society, disempowering their already significantly powerless narrator. This affects the character’s agency and can create an inauthentic representation of what PTSD is.
Therefore, in ‘Part 1’ of this paper I look at three books that create a generic representation of this mental illness. This part of the essay will study the use of the subconscious in young adult literature that the use of altered states of perception, dreams, memories, internal interruptions— the narrator uses while telling the story. How these insertions are used poorly and how they can be used well will be examined PTSD concentrating on what tools are used to portray within in young adult literature.