When LOVE Cures Mental Illness

One of the things that endlessly frustrates me about some YA novels that revolve around themes of mental health is the idea that the love interest, or romance itself, can “cure” mental illness. Don’t get me wrong — I love reading books to do with mental illness because I think they’re so important and powerful. Not only can they help those battling to see that they’re not alone in feeling how they do and that there’s always hope and someone who loves you, but also to educate other readers about the reality of living with a mental illness. It’s not sunshines and rainbows, and it’s certainly not romantic. I wrote a post about how self-harm is often glamorised or romanticised in the media and our literature, but today I’m going to be discussing how harmful it is to portray mental illness as something that can be “cured” when you fall in love, or when the “right person” comes along and saves you.

A book I was reading recently called Optimists Die First really got me thinking about the place romance has in novels that are attempting to give an accurate and raw portrayal about what it’s like to live with a mental illness. I’m not saying that there should be a ban on love in these sorts of novels, or books with these themes, but I strongly believe that love should never be written as “the thing that saves you” from your mental illness. While we didn’t see our protagonist “cured” from her social anxiety and OCD (though the OCD isn’t given a label in the narrative), the love interest had some dubious motives for why he wanted to become close with her, and as their relationship grew, Petula’s symptoms were seen to recede. All because of “love”.

If there’s a love that I’d be happy to see more of in YA novels about mental illness is the love and support given by friends and family. There’s so much emphasis placed on romantic love in helping one “cope with” or “overcome” their mental illness, but to me, that seems very unrealistic and potentially hurtful. It sends readers the message that falling in love with “cure” your mental illness, and even that you’re a lesser person because of the battles you’re facing, as you become “whole” when you meet that “special someone” that changes your life for the better. It’s awfully clichéd, and exceptionally trite. I’ve had enough of these types of books.

For a long time, before I could understand that books had more of a responsibility to readers than just providing them with entertainment, I didn’t recognise the problematic elements entrenched in my favourite novels. I overlooked what parts could be hurtful, or were subliminally filling me with a false idea of what falling in love when you’re battling a mental illness would be like. And while I don’t want to bore you with my life story, I have depression and anxiety (though I like to think of myself as “recovering” rather than those still being an active part of my life) and I feel that reading the literature I did during that time gave me a warped perspective of what my life should be like. I was in a dark place for a long time, and it definitely wasn’t like how some of the novels described. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed. There were days I wanted to end it all. And falling in love didn’t “fix” me.

When I fell in love for the first time, I was naive and foolish. I was in a dark place, and I honestly thought this boy could “cure” me, like what happened in all the books I’d been reading. And at first, I thought his love and support was helping me. I told him everything, and he didn’t judge me. Or so I thought. He didn’t think my scars made me broken, or unfixable. Or so I thought. But by the time we’d been together for just over a year, it was clear he’d been getting sick of me all along. One night after a fight he cracked and spewed everything he was really thinking the whole time. He was one of the main reasons why I could fathom getting up in the morning, and when he told me what he must have been thinking all along, I realised that the books had got it wrong. Love doesn’t cure you. Another person can’t save you. Only you can save you.

So understandably, I’m very conscious of novels romanticising mental illness now, and I despise books that insinuate that falling in love can “cure” you. Including Optimists Die First. I’m not going to spoil the “twist” for you, but when Petula’s symptoms basically disappeared after she got with her Romeo, I couldn’t help but feel angry. When you’re living with a mental illness, your symptoms don’t just disappear once you fall in love, and I honestly felt that’s what Optimists Die First was insinuating.

If there was one thing I liked about Optimists Die First, it’d be the amputee representation shown in one of the main characters. We definitely need more YA novels with amputee representation, and for that this novel should be commended. However, there were a couple of jibes towards amputees said by the amputee themselves which could be considered hurtful, and you should be cautious when reading. Ultimately, Optimists Die First wasn’t a book I enjoyed and could be quite harmful for some readers, so please take that into consideration if you decide to pick it up.

Let's Talk

Have you read Optimists Die First, or any other books that seem to show a character’s mental illness to be “cured” by love? What place do you think romance has in novels that are centred around mental health issues? What are some YA novels that portray mental illness realistically? I’d love to know!

Thanks to Penguin Australia for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

optimists-die-firstPetula has avoided friendship and happiness ever since tragedy struck her family and took her beloved younger sister Maxine. Worse, Petula blames herself. If only she’d kept an eye on her sister, if only she’d sewn the button Maxine choked on better, if only…

Now her anxiety is getting out of control, she is forced to attend the world’s most hopeless art therapy class. But one day, in walks the Bionic Man: a charming, amazingly tall newcomer called Jacob, who is also an amputee. Petula’s ready to freeze him out, just like she did with her former best friend, but when she’s paired with Jacob for a class project, there’s no denying they have brilliant ideas together – ideas like remaking Wuthering Heights with cats.

But Petula and Jacob each have desperately painful secrets in their pasts – and when the truth comes out, there’s no way Petula is ready for it.

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38 thoughts on “When LOVE Cures Mental Illness

  1. Thank you for sharing your past experience! It put the whole thing into perspective and really did explain the point you were trying to get across quite well! Please do keep writing these great posts, as I really enjoy them and look forward to reading them every time! Keep up the good work!

  2. Really interesting and I couldn’t agree more with your points. Love in my experience is not a cure for my mental health issues either. Keep up the great writing! And the book intrigues me.

  3. Thank you very much for this post! It is so important to remind readers that books don’t always send the right message. Like you, I suffer from depression and anxiety (and in a bad period at the moment) and it really irks me to find stories telling people that love cures all. Yes, the support and love of friends and family is very important, but to let people pour their hopes in a love that would be the key to getting your life back and be cured and happy, is wrong.

  4. I like this post a lot. Although I’ve not read Optimists Die First, I can relate because I struggle with MDD and if love could make it go away, I’d not have it right now.

    It’s important to know that as much as people love you and care about you, mental illness is something that affection cannot cure. It does help and assist you through tough times but it doesn’t make it disappear.

    Cool post!

  5. I love love love this post! Thank you so much for writing this! I suffer from very bad anxiety and panic attacks and my friend, who read a book about a girl suffering from MH issues, jokingly told me that ‘she should just find me a boy, and I’ll get better’. No, just no.
    Btw, have you read Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes? I think that book combines MH and romance very well. The boy doesn’t cure the MC’s anxiety, but he does help her do the exposure things her therapist told her to do, which then helps her.

    • Aww thanks so much! Ugh, that’s so awful. I can’t believe that anyone would thinking saying that (or even just writing it) is okay.

      And no, I haven’t read that one! I’ll have to grab a copy now. Thanks for the recommendation! 💕

  6. I’m gonna be completely honest with you and though I was going to go through this same thing with Under Rose-Tainted Skies and THANK HECK I was SO WRONG! [Luckily the author also suffered from agoraphobia like I do, and only discovered that when I was already halfway through the book.] I am often wary of romance-themed books with MCs with MI for this very reason. ‘cos as someone with multiple mental illnesses, if loving my fiance could fix it, i’d have a “normal” life again. But it’s not like that at all, and I strongly urge authors to keep that in mind, especially those who are not #ownvoices on the subject.

    • Phew, that’s a relief! I recently bought that one but I haven’t had the chance to read it yet – I’m looking forward to picking it up now! And I completely agree with you. We need more realistic and genuine stories, preferably by #ownvoices authors 💕

  7. Ughhhhh why do books do this?!! This is definitely one of my least favourite, and one of the most damaging, tropes in YA fiction. I too thought a partner would fix me, and I too got a nasty shock near the end of our relationship when I finally realised it wasn’t true.

    I’ve got an ARC for Optimists, but I’m not sure now if I’m going to read it. :/ Thanks for the heads up.

  8. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for this beautiful post. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about this lately but I really appreciate you sharing your personal experiences. I’ve struggled with depression for over a decade. Back when I was a teenager (and undiagnosed) I read a lot of YA, mostly the old-school cute contemporaries. While I know the authors probably had great intentions (and it did serve as escapism), by the time I graduated high school I was pretty much convinced that finding “true love” would fix my Depression. Spoiler Alert: It didn’t. Often falling out of love can increase symptoms of depression. Then you add in the fact that folks who aren’t dealing with mental illness have no idea how to react to their depressed/anxious/etc. loved one? I mean, jeez! Talk about triggering!

    I wanna see more books where teen love and mental illness are treated honestly. But I’m tired of waiting around for it to happen, so I’ve pretty much decided to write the book I want to read. I sincerely hope other authors out there are reading what you and others are saying, but until then, I’m writing my own.

    • Thank you for reading my post! I can definitely relate to your experience, and I really think we need more YA novels with a realistic portrayal of mental illness and how it not only affects the person living with it, but also the people around them. And I’d love to read your own novel about this issue! 💜

  9. Sarah,
    YES! I agree with you so much, because mental illness is infrequently represented. And, when it is shown in stories, there is often someone who comes along and somehow cures the mentally ill character. This is very problematic. Intersectionality matters, too. So, for instance, I am a mentally ill aromantic asexual person. If my fate were in a novel, I’d be doomed! I just feel like we need more variety in how mental illness is portrayed, and I don’t want it to be the central feature anymore. Like, can we stop acting like mental illness means you’re broken and in need of saving? Why can’t we be the main characters on quests and adventures? I am writing my own novels, and there will be adventures in them for mentally ill people.

  10. So sad to hear 😦 This is a similar discussion to one I did when I FIRST started blogging, because I think it’s a really important topic. I read this one book where the MC fell in love and chucked out her meds because she was now magically cured (????), and I was like…you cannot send that kind of message to impressionable teenage readers. I can’t believe books like that get through SO many gatekeepers, and yet positive representations of same-sex relationships get censored because of “religion.” But that’s another rant entirely.

    Anyway, thank you for this post. Let’s hope we get more positive representation of mental illness ❤

    • It’s definitely a really important topic, and it’s something we always seem to be coming back to – we need to fix this. WOW. That’s terrible! I think I may have read that one too, and it was very concerning. That angers me so much. I’m just hoping we’ll have better mental illness representation in future too 💕

  11. Brilliant post, Sarah. This is an issue that I’m super passionate about it. It’s why I’m always so hesitant to read YA books about mental illness. Love can definitely play a part in helping with MI but it’s not a cure and so many books seem to blur that line. I really wish there were more accurate depictions shown because, in my case, trying to keep friendships (never alone a relationship) with my MIs is a struggle enough. Like I said I wish there was more focus on friendship and family. I wish medication was talked about more too. It’s such a bad message to give out to potential impressionable teens.

    Also, thank you for sharing your story ♥ I was in a similar-ish situation myself so I know it mustn’t have been easy to talk about.

    • Thanks so much for reading it! I absolutely agree, and we definitely need to see more of a focus on friends and family in these novels – not just the love interest. And I mean, why do we always have to HAVE a love interest in YA novels where the protagonist is living with a mental illness? It’s ridiculous, and often very unrealistic. I’m sorry you were in a similar situation to me, but I’m glad I’m not the only one to have dealt with that 💜

  12. Thank you for sharing your experience! ❤ I never been in love before, but I know that falling in love can't save you from anything. Noone and nothing can fix us except ourselves! The only thing other people can do to us is only supporting and accepting us, but never fixing us. Also, just because we have mental illness doesn't mean we are broken! I think this is the issue that books featuring mental illness rarely talks about: no one is broken and in need of fixing. Mental illness don't magically dissapear, most people battles it throughout their lives! I really wish YA will highlight that part more, and less on the romanticized version of mental illness.

    • Thanks for reading my post! Exactly. Some of the people I know who are living with mental illnesses are the bravest, funniest, and most empathetic people. Definitely NOT broken or unfixable. And people living with mental illnesses should be heroes too, not the ones needing “saving”, like we see so much of in YA. I do hope authors start realising this ❤️

  13. Another brilliant and poignant post (not that I’m surprised). I 100% agree with you – the trope that mental illness can be “cured” by romantic love is nothing but harmful. I’m so sorry to hear about what you went through *hugs*… We all love you ^_^

  14. I haven’t read the book you’re referring to but I agree that the idea of love curing mental illness is a dangerous. I’ve battled mental illness myself and I feel like the unfortunate reality is that mental illness tends to damage relationships, both romantic and platonic. When you’re able to work through your issues and start feeling better about yourself your relationships improve and become more rewarding

  15. “I was in a dark place for a long time, and it definitely wasn’t like how some of the novels described. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed. There were days I wanted to end it all. And falling in love didn’t “fix” me.”, but it does makes you feel better knowing that there’s someone who actually understands and supports you.

  16. Thank you for writing this. Too much emphasis is placed on teenage love — it’s not a big leap to go from “if love can cure my sadness and body image problems” to “it can cure my depression and eating disorder!” Neither is true. And both imply that you’re worse off without a romantic partner, which can lead to staying in terrible relationships…

  17. I’m super glad I stumbled across this post – I totally agree, admittedly ‘love’ is seen as a cure all for almost everything in fiction but mental illness just feels particularly obnoxious to have swept away in romantic bliss.

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