Updated: Jan 30
Books have been my jam since I was a child. In particular, I love novels. Lately I’ve been reading more and more young adult authors, mostly because these narratives tend to bring together my curiosities about the human experience and issues of identity. Young Adult (YA) novels usually have middle or high school main characters, who are going through this tumultuous time of self-discovery and identity development. The glimpse that these authors offer into someone else’s life is an awesome way to build empathy for others, we can hear and deeply understand the perspective of others.
There is also the way that many of these YA books address mental health. I am so grateful for how these authors access emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in their characters that help me (and all of us) to understand better what it’s like to be in the depths of depression or the hamster wheel of anxiety.
Recently I read, The Silence that Binds Us, by Joanna Ho. And it’s been helping me think about what depression and suicide look like, especially in different cultural contexts. Ho’s book is narrated by May, a highschooler trying to navigate friendships, her own desires and the many expectations of those around her. May’s middle-class Chinese American family lives in California in what appears to be a very well-resourced area. At the outset of the novel May’s picture perfect older brother dies by suicide and she spends the rest of the book grappling with his loss while also exploring how she wants to engage the world around her. I won’t spoil the end, but I’ll say that it’s a really moving demonstration of what it means to own your voice while also loving your community and your cultural values.
As a psychologist I was particularly struck by how nuanced and open May’s experience of grief over the loss of her brother was described. May spends a lot of time in her head trying to understand how this could have happened to her brother and to her family. She asks all the questions that haunt us, “why didn’t I see it? Was it really that bad? How could I have not seen it?” Her brother, Danny, was by all accounts a happy, high achieving kid. He was on the basketball team, popular, and doing well in school. There are hints in the book that he may have felt pressured to be perfect or as though he had to preform rather than just be present in his life. Depression is sneaky that way, sometimes especially for boys and men. I suspect that most of us think about depression as sadness, hopelessness, and even lack of motivation to do things. We probably are less accustomed to symptoms of depression such as: difficulty making decisions, lack of interest in most activities, irritability, and feelings of self-blame. What’s helpful about how Ho’s book represents depression is that it’s subtle. Danny appears to have been struggling with depression for some time prior to his suicide however, he was good at masking it. And those around him didn’t expect him to be depressed so they didn’t see it. He may have been like a lot of men and boys, where depression isn’t sadness and crying, it’s more irritability and frustration.
The book is about much more than Danny’s story and Ho is masterful at helping us to understand systemic racial and cultural dynamics within the larger narrative. The book is grounded in a young woman’s exploration of self, but along the way we get to learn so much about how to have compassion for those around us struggling internally. We can’t always see what’s happening inside of those around us, which can have life changing consequences, like it does for May, Danny, their family, and their community.
If you or someone you know struggles with depression it’s a good read. And if you just want to learn more about the varied lives of us humans it’s worth your time. There is good treatment for depression you don't have to suffer alone, feel free to reach out for counseling and therapy. And if you are looking for other resources on depression see below:
Thanks for reading,