Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

O Captain, My Captain: In which I mourn the loss of a childhood hero and discuss depression and suicide

Last night I came home from working at my library with a DVD in hand to watch with my family. It was 10 o’clock, but it’s one of our last few nights where we can stay up late so I went to slip it in. As the DVD player opened, a movie sat inside of it. That movie was A Night at the Museum. It’s not surprising that it was in there, it is one of the girls favorite movies. I have seen it a lot, glancing at it over their shoulders as I look up from the pages of the book I am reading. It brings them so much joy.

A few weeks ago, I decided The Tween was finally ready to watch Dead Poet’s Society with me. One of my favorite movies. Ever. In the end, when Neil Perry takes his life, The Tween began sobbing. What is he doing she asked? Why? So we had a conversation, about how it might feel to have no hope. About what it was like to be stuck in a place of such utter darkness that you couldn’t imagine a future anymore that didn’t involve despair.

When I first moved from Ohio to Texas, one of the teens from my hometown took his life. I found out when one of my favorite teens, a teen from my previous library that I keep in contact with (he’s an adult now, it’s okay), broke out in despair on Facebook. Just the year before, another individual that I worked with at the local public radio station had taken his own life. And just a few month’s later, the neighbor of a friend, the father of a teen I knew well from my previous library, attempted to take his life. He failed, but he put a bullet in his brain that caused severe damage that changed the landscape of all their lives. These past few years I have seen far too many people take or attempt to take their lives and the statistics indicate that suicide rates are indeed rising.

I cried yesterday at work when I saw the news about Robin Williams. I cried because Robin Williams is such a familiar face from the landscape of my life. I grew up watching Mork and Mindy. The Mr. and I saw Aladdin on one of our early dates. My kids watch A Night at the Museum the way I watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, over and over and over again.

I cried because I understood all too well what darkness and the absence of hope feels like. When I miscarried my second baby, the only thing that got me out of bed each day was the knowledge that I had to find a way to take care of The Tween, who was only four at the time. There were times where it felt physically impossible to even lift my limbs.

I cried because I knew the long term ache that this kind of loss leaves in the hearts of all those that love someone who takes their own life. I have friends who speak often of the devastating guilt and overwhelming loss that the suicide of a loved one has left on their families, on them. But suicide is not a selfish act, it is a desperate act. It is the act of someone who has no reason to believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, they can’t even imagine that there is an end to the tunnel. There is at times nothing but this tunnel, this dark, overwhelming tunnel that lies and whispers that suicide is the only way to end both the very real mental and physical pain.

I cried because I know how hard it can be to admit that you are struggling with depression in a world that still stigmatizes it; a world that still tells you to think positive thoughts or suggests that even just forcing yourself to turn your frown upside down into a smile can change your mood. And with all the discussions we have been having recently about mental health in the United States, it is still hard to get any let alone enough medical insurance to cover effective mental health treatment.

Depression is an illness. It is not a character flaw. It is not someone just not trying hard enough or having a pessimistic attitude. It is not someone having a lack of faith, as a Christian friend of mine often expressed. It is not karmic retribution. It is real and it is a daily battle for those who struggle with this disease.

1 in 12 teens suffers from depression. Mental Health America suggests that 1 in 5 teens may suffer from clinical depression. And some of the others, their families are affected by depression as a parent or a sibling wrestles with the disease and it impacts them all. Know who to refer the teens in your area to for help. Know that the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

Come this fall, I will take my girls to the movies to see the latest installment of A Night at the Museum, and I will cry. I will cry because it looks like another person lost their fight against the darkness that is depression. I will cry because that little alien from an egg that brought me so much joy in my childhood is no longer around to say Nanoo Nanoo. And I will cry  every time I open my favorite book of poetry and see O’ Captain, My Captain.

By all accounts, Robin Williams probably had the means to get good health care to help fight his depression, and yet it appears he still lost the battle. I can’t help but think of all those who don’t have access to health care or insurance. All those who come from broken homes and may not have someone to call in their worst moments. Or all those who live among people who don’t understand what depression is so they can’t get the help that they need. We have to do more to de-stigmatize depression and help people get access to the resources they need to fight this disease. I’m tired of these tears, let’s do something different in the fight against depression. 

Mental Health Resources 
13 Reasons Why: Teens and Suicide
One Day is Not Enough 

List of Lists: Teens and Mental Health Resources

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

According to the NCCP, approximately 20% of adolescents have a diagnosed mental health issue. Most mental health disorders begin to present in the adolescent years. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among adolescents. According to NAMI, 50% of children who present with a mental illness will drop out of school.

In addition, a variety of teens are living in houses where they are being raised by a parent who suffers from some type of mental health issue. Approximately 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. These are the parents, grandparents, and love ones of many of our teens.

Mental health issues are an important issue for teens. Reading stories about characters with mental health disorders can help teens understand their parents, their friends, or their selves. It can give them hope. It can affirm and validate their experiences. Below are links to several lists of YA titles that deal with mental health issues in some way.

A Variety of YA Lit Book Lists

Stephanie Khuen: YA Highway
Kuehn presents a very comprehensive reading list of YA lit titles broken down by various subjects and issues including anxiety disorders, eating disorders, bipolar disorders, thought disorders and impulse control. The list isn’t annotated, but it does link back to the Goodreads page for a description and publisher information.

Adventures of Lit Girl
This page presents a list of mostly YA titles, there are a few adult titles, broken down by various issues. Only covers are presented, you have to click through to the Goodreads page to get the book description and publisher information.

We’re All Made Here: Mental Illness in YA Fiction
Bitch Magazine discusses some of the issues in titles in a brief article.

Can Teen Fiction Explain Mental Illness to My Daughter?
The Guardian presents a good article about teens navigating personal and family mental illness and discusses how YA fiction can help teens in these situations.

Reach Out Reads
In 2011, Inspire USA released a short list of titles called Reach Out Reads. These titles deal with a variety of mental health topics including bullying in schizophrenia. There is only one title for each topic.

For Statistics, Facts and Resources, Check Out These Resources

Teen Mental Health
 A pretty comprehensive site

Healthy Children
An article on watching for danger signs

Office of Adolescent Health 
Another comprehensive site that looks at adolescent mental health issues.

Children of Parents with Mental Illness
Help for children who have parents that suffer from a mental illness.

From Risk to Resilience: Support for Children whose Parents Have Mental Illness
Help for children who have parents that suffer from a mental illness.

Teen Issues at TLT
We have a variety of posts that talk about a variety of teen issues, including addiction, body image, and mental health.

Take 5: Reasons to read your December 2013 VOYA


There is a great list of titles that depict Muslims in Young Adult Literature.  Since September 11th, the Muslim population has been the target of a tremendous amount of fear, bias and outright racial targeting.  This is a good and varied list that examines the Muslim life in a wide variety of ways and can help break down those prejudices. (by Amanda MacGregor, page 12)


Last year, Pride and Prejudice turned 200 years old.  There are tons of ya titles that somehow reference Pride and Prejudice, and I’m not just talking about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  VOYA has a list of titles for you and your teen Austen fans. (by Christina Miller, page 14)


As you know, I am a huge advocate for serving teens on the Autism spectrum in libraries.  The December issue of VOYA has a really good look at serving teens with Asperger’s or a Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD).  There is also some good information on what it is and resources.  (by Madelene Rathbun Barnard, page 28)

4.  GETTING GIRLS IN THE GAME: Making Gaming Inclusive

On Tumblr, there has been a statistic going around about how girls make up 35% of the gaming community but less than 10% of the characters in games (loosely, this are not exact figures).  The truth is, I have met a lot of ya authors who are avid gamers.  And a lot of my female teens are avid gamers as well.  This article, by Hannah R. Gerber, is a good discussion about making gaming more inclusive.  I highly recommend that you do some Googling and read up on the issues that women face in the gaming community; it’s not always very pretty and can be quite serious in terms of the threats, hate and sexual and verbal threats that girls can receive. (by Hannah R. Gerber, page 44)


According to the article by Tina P. Schwartz, about 11 percent of teens have a depressive disorder.  That is a huge figure.  Girls are more likely than boys to experience depression.  This article is a good look at the signs, the various kinds of depression, triggers and some resources to help teens understand their mood disorders. (by Tina P. Schwartz, page 16)

Please note, TLT is a networked blog with VOYA Magazine.

Book Review: Permanent Record by Leslie Stella

She’s peeling what’s left of some green nail polish off her pinkie. She says, “Bud, I’m still worried. You know, about that letter. That douche bag Dylan was telling his idiot friends that you were a weirdo- I heard him in History. And what about Trevor? He was whispering with his little pack of panting dogs that he thinks you wrote it, and you’re trying to mess with the paper because you’re jealous of him.”

“You don’t think I really wrote it, do you?” I ask.

“You know I don’t, but listen: you don’t want these guys on your bad side. They can make life really unpleasant for people they don’t like.”

“Unpleasant?” I laugh. It’s a harsh, barking sound. “Unpleasant? Don’t forget who you’re talking to, Nikki.”
“I know it was bad at Sullivan, but these guys can be ruthless.”

Then it comes.

Not the panic attack. It’s the rage, and it’s on slow burn.

“Ruthless,” I say, “is being cracked in the face with a cafeteria tray, and the teachers on patrol don’t notice because they’re busy calling the riot police to break up a gang fight. Ruthless is being beaten with a golf club on a public sidewalk underneath the Safe School Zone sign. Ruthless is seeing towelhead and sand nigger Sharpied on your locker. Ruthless is watching am ambulance cart away a dead fourteen-year-old as you wait for the bus.” I tell her, “I can handle Magnificat’s brand of ruthless.”

She watches me. Those eyes are an astounding shade of green, and I have to turn away.
“All that?” she asks. “All that happened . . . to you?”

“To me.”

Sixteen-year-old Badi Hessamizadeh has been through everything: trying to find himself in a world that hates his heritage, dealing with depression and panic attacks, and bullying that goes far over into abuse. When he’s pulled from his public school and placed into Magnificat Academy under a new Americanized name, he tries to take things slow but is placed into the role of social outcast and starts to pull small acts of resistance to deal with the changes.  When strange letters to the editor of the school newspaper appear hinting at tragedy for the school, all eyes shift to the newcomer, and while Badi and his friend Nikki try to clear his name and find the real culprit, Badi’s situation starts spiraling out of control. 

Permanent Record tells the story through Badi/Bud’s voice, and you have to realize that he’s an unreliable narrator, but his story is so gripping and real to anyone who knows what huge high schools can be like.  Horrible abuse (too much to call bullying) happened to Badi at his old school culminating in his striking back (revealed later in the book) and Badi was withdrawn, much to the shame of his family.  His second chance is the private Magnificat Academy- as Bud Hess.  Yet it’s obvious to Badi from the start it’s a no win situation: his shoes are wrong, as is his backback; he sits at the reject table; he doesn’t have a sport. Finally joining the newspaper after his father demands he have a school activity, he finds two friends- Nikki and Reggie.  And as soon as Badi/Bud shows up, mysterious letters to the editor start appearing, all being attributed by the student body as being written by him.  And all hinting at all the things going wrong at the school, and horrible things that will happen if things can’t be fixed. The mystery, added to Badi/Bud’s already complex character, make this a gripping novel. 4 out of 5 stars.  As of March 16, 2013, Goodreads has Permanent Record listed as 4.25 stars. 

NOTE: There is strong language, some graphic violence, and reference to rape in this book.  

I tore through this book, couldn’t put it down. Badi (I hate to think of him as Bud) and his whole story really got to me: I wanted to know WHY he was released from the previous school, and WHAT had happened to make it so bad. I wanted to know HOW he was going to cope/not cope at his new school, and then when the mysterious notes started cropping up that we knew were not Badi I had to know WHO they were written by.  And I loved the fact that I had no clue who was doing it- I had guesses, and was totally wrong, which is wonderful (it’s like a Moffat Sherlock episode!).  

What I adored about this book is that it didn’t tone down the abuse (and it IS abuse- if this happened outside of an educational setting to an adult in a workplace there would be arrests) that Badi suffered at his first school. Nor did it tone down the situation at his new school: the all-out push for sports against everything else (currently happening in a host of areas across the country in the wake of budget cuts), the uselessness of the teacher, the reaction when he refuses to sell the chocolate. 

At first his revenges are small, and easy. He refuses to sell the school chocolates. He refuses to blend in. Then as he shares what happened to him at his old school, he starts standing up for himself at his new school, and things start snowballing.  On a second read, I understand why he gets more manic/ragey (huge spoiler so I won’t go into it but definitely worth another read) but I can’t help but wonder if someone should have noticed his actions at the climax sooner. The fact that he realized the actions were wrong, and changes them at the last minute makes for a stronger ending. I have hope for Badi.

Another faction that I loved was his family interaction and the shame that he’s made to feel for having depression and panic attacks.  Part of it is his cultural heritage, but part of it is also the stigma we as a society have against depression. This is so extremely painful it hurts, and it’s all to real for anyone who has mental illness of any type.  When you have depression and/or panic attacks, it’s a double stigma, because in life everyone is supposed to be happy and be able to deal with everything, and when you’re not, take a pill and get off the couch. It doesn’t work that way, and add in the fact that you’re shaming the family as well as dealing with your own issues is a double whammy. 

I thought it was a really well written and thought out book, and would not have any hesitation recommended it to my older teens.