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Writing about mental health and getting it right is tough. Writers need to understand and articulate what mentally ill people are feeling and it cannot read like a cliche. Readers, whether they have mental health issues or not, are going to see through platitudes, flat characterisations, and overly dramatic writing. And just like mental health has no set formula or way of manifesting, the way people write about it should also reflect this. That is where Holly Bourne’s novel Are We All Lemmings and Snowflakes? comes in.
If you judge Bourne’s novel just from the title it seems a bit light hearted and tongue-in-cheek. The title pokes fun at the idea of conformity and fitting in as well as the millennial trend of being special and different. The term ‘snowflake’ is a loaded word in today’s world. It has all the political connotations added with it as well as a general meaning of ‘being too sensitive’. The term ‘snowflake’ has also been used to talk about people who struggle with mental health. A classic example of this is the debate around trigger warnings and PTSD and how only ‘sensitive snowflakes’ need them. If you want to know what I think about trigger warning, check out a previous piece I wrote on the topic. So whilst a superficial glance at Bourne’s book might suggest some fun, the book is rather serious and dark. It deals with some heavy stuff, which I will go into detail about later. So if mental health, talking specifically about depression, suicide, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, and institutionalisation are triggering for you then read on with caution.
Bourne’s novel is set around the teenage protagonist, Olive, who has struggled with her mental health. She specifically asks doctors not to know her diagnosis because she feels that the labels of her mental health will make her restrict herself. She talented, funny, witty, and confident when she is good. When she is bad, she is dark, closed-off, and tired. Managing these two vastly different sides of herself is tough and after a near suicide attempt, she is given the opportunity to go to a facility for a month to get help, free of charge. The fact that this institution is free (because it is in the trial phase) is one of the biggest things to point out about mental health care. It costs a lot of money to help and look after people who need mental health assistance. Around the world it is not treated in the same way as other illnesses and many insurance companies consider it an ‘extra’ premium or not part of ‘normal’ health care needs, which is really easy to think when you don’t have anything wrong with you. People around the world do not get the care and support they need for their mental health. It is all good and well to give someone medication, and for some people medication is crucial to their well-being, however, for most people medication is the tip of the large iceberg in their mental health care. Olive goes to this facility to try to get better and she puts a lot of pressure on herself because she knows she only has one month ‘to make it right’. She knows her parents cannot afford care like this, even though this might be the type of care she needs. She knows that something has to change. So she goes on a mission to cure herself.
Olive makes some unlikely friends in the facility and she works with a maths nerd to try to figure out an algorithm to treat and cure mental health. Although if it were that simple, we wouldn’t be talking about all the problems around treating mental health… because it would simply be cured. The effort is noble. In the end, they believe the way to start helping people is by spreading kindness: they make origami helicopters with messages about being kind to yourself and others. Throughout this whole process, Olive also goes through a full manic episode and crashes at the end of the book.
The book is funny, sad, hopeful, witty, painful, and raw. I am no expert in psychology, but I feel that Bourne does an amazing job at really peeling back the different layers of mental health and how it affects people who are suffering. This is a great book for all ages, even though the book is technically categorised as Y.A. I read it in a few days because it was really gripping and quite the page-turner.
Have you read any of Bourne’s other novels? What are your favourite books about mental health? As always, share the reading love.