How young adult fiction is helping children battle depression

For a child, coping with a depressed adult is as difficult a task as taking on a dementor.


GROWING PANGS  |   5-minute read |   26-09-2014



In JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the idea of depression manifested in the form of dementors, foul creatures that suck on happy memories, draining out all good feelings, spreading despair wherever they go. In an interview withOprah Winfrey, the British author talked about her personal experience with depression which prompted her to create these monsters, “It’s so difficult to describe [depression] to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling – that really hollowed-out feeling. That’s what Dementors are.”

Depression was on everyone’s mind, chiefly with the tragic death of American actor Robin Willaims on August 11, who suffered from the mental illness. For children, depression is a hard concept to understand.

Yet, Google “childhood + depression + India” and a number of studies pop up, along with a bunch of news features. Plus, adult depression is pretty much on the rise, yet another established Google-able fact. For a child, coping with a depressed adult is as difficult a task as taking on a dementor.

Books are one way that children can begin to understand and possibly cope with mental illness. In Rowling’s books, Potter manages to conjure up the Patronus charm, a defensive charm against dementors. On her website,, Rowling offers a wonderful explanation, “… that a human confronted with inhuman evil, such as the Dementor, must draw upon resources he or she may never have needed, and the Patronus is the awakened secret self that lies dormant until needed, but which must now be brought to light…” Basically, making young readers realise that the ability to battle the monsters of depression lies within them.

 Another book, Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why released in 2007, and it told the disturbing story of a teenager who comes home to find a box full of audio tapes from him. The tapes have been recorded by Hannah Baker, his classmate, who he also had a crush on, but she committed suicide two weeks earlier.

As Clay Jensen listens to the tape, Hannah recounts 13 reasons why she decided to end her life and one of them is, possibly, him. It’s a chilling story about bullying, sexual violence, abuse and depression, with drastic consequences. A website,, stemmed from the book, where fans of the book could “share their thoughts and stories relating to the book”. Teens above the age of 13 have explained how the book changed their life, coming to terms with bullying, making them rethink how they interact with their peers and coming to terms with tragedy as well.

Closer home, books have run through a range of issues – from female foeticide to terrorism, social media woes to sexuality. For instance, Ela by Sampurna Chattarji tells the story of a girl who leads a perfect life until she finds out that she is adopted. Ela has to deal with a gamut of emotions from anger, grief to depression. However, depression, or rather mental illness, hasn’t been the central theme of many children’s books in India. It could be a reflection of how little this grave issue is still understood by us, or it could simply be thought of as too grim a topic for children.

However, in his latest book, Brilliant, Roddy Doyle manages to explain the issue in a simple manner, with a deft touch of humour. In Brilliant, the “Black Dog of Depression” invades Dublin, he prowls in the night, the air above the city becomes darker and the people become gloomier. As the grownups sink deeper in depression, they mumble and slump, and they find themselves down in the dumps. The adults don’t realise what is happening, but the animals do and they also know that only the city’s kids can stop the black dog from spreading his poison.

So off they go, to retrieve Dublin’s funny bone from the black dog. Hordes of children, including the protagonists give chase, aided by a menagerie of talking animals who give sage advice when needed. The solution, the young reader realises, lies in something simple – the power of positivity and optimism. Whenever the kids feel tired, and think that they possibly cannot walk one more step, or start losing faith, an innocuous word gives them a glimmer of hope. Every time the kids say the word “brilliant” out loud, it fills them with courage and lights their way.

Doyle’s story has the children dashing all across Dublin, chasing the black dog. But it essentially deals with issues that are global – recession, the economic slump, its impact on people’s mental health and their ability to cope with it. We live in confusing times, and the kids (and even the animals) inBrilliant try to make sense of it in the best way possible.

Or as Professor Remus Lupin recommends in the Potter books, after an encounter with dementors, one should have a chocolate, at the very least.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of or the India Today Group. The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.


Bijal VachharajaniBIJAL VACHHARAJANI @bijal_v

The writer was the former Time Out Bangalore editor and is currently consultant with Fairtrade India.

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