Young people dealing with mental health issues is not something new. As an educator for over 40 years, I can recall (with the benefit of hindsight) many students over the years who were dealing with varying levels of success, with a wide range of mental health conditions. The problem was, until recently, there was a lack of recognition by parents, teachers, and even health care professionals that these were issues that affected young people. This resulted in a lack of appropriate resources to assist these students, as well as a lack of reading materials which reflected their struggles.
Mermaid Tears is the first in a series of middle grade novels set in the fictional Michaels Middle School in Massachusetts. In these books young readers will meet characters who are dealing with many different mental health conditions. Readers will get to know these characters, understand their struggles, and travel with them along the road to creating for themselves a positive way forward in life.
Some readers will see these books as windows, enabling them to look out at something which is not a part of their life experience. By getting to know characters such as Sarah, the protagonist in Mermaid Tears I hope they will be able to develop an understanding of their peers who are experiencing mental health issues. I hope they will be encouraged to think of ways they could help, like the characters of Michelle and Giuseppe in the story.
Other readers will see these books as mirrors, reflecting to them an aspect of their own life. If the reader is looking into a mirror, I hope they will realize they are not alone, and that help is available. I hope they will accept that once they take that first, and possibly most difficult, step of asking for help things can be quite different for them going forward. An essential message of Mermaid Tears is that there is no such thing as normal, that we are all different, and that these differences are things to be celebrated rather than hidden.
Sarah finds a trusted adult to ask for help. She turns to her teacher, Mr. Douglas, who takes this shared confidence very seriously. He puts into motion the chain of events which will lead to Sarah being able to take the first steps back to her life.
Another key message of Mermaid Tears is that it is so important to be open about your mental health issues. Pre-teens and teens who are struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions often do not know how to reach out and be open. They see these issues as weakness, something to be hidden from others so they can appear to be the same as their peers. I hope that Sarah’s story will help these readers to understand that we all have issues we are dealing with.
There are important messages here for parents, caregivers, and teachers as well. While Sarah’s parents show how, without meaning to, parents can often be so busy with everyday busy family life issues, Mr. Douglas models well how adults can create a relationship with young people which will enable them to reach out if they need help.
The global COVID-19 pandemic, and the stresses which have been created and magnified by it, has thrown a spotlight on the issues of the mental health of our young people. The pandemic has changed our world. Much of this change has been negative.
However, by highlighting how much our pre-teens and teens are struggling in many ways it is possible, I believe, to bring a positive twist to this situation. As parents and educators, we have been made more aware of their struggles. The conversation has begun.
How can we help? How can we model to our pre-teens and teens that there is a way forward? How can we show them that they are not alone, and that asking for help has positive results? As an educator I know how important it is for students to be able to see themselves in literature. By writing Mermaid Tears, I hope to be able to reach out to the readers who are suffering, and to show them that there is a way forward.
The very famous children’s author Beverley Cleary, who wrote many of our childhood favourites, has been quoted as saying, “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.” As a teenager I did not see the books I wanted to read on the shelves of my school library or bookstores. I did not see young people like me, young people who had mental health struggles. I thought that meant it was just me who was like this. It was just me who found it difficult to be a good student, a good friend, and a good daughter. I thought it was just me who saw school, and life in general as a very difficult challenge. The Michaels Middle School series is my way of telling today’s students that none of these things are true.
Susan L. Read is a school librarian and the author of the new book Mermaid Tears, out now and published by Izzard Ink. Learn more on her website susanlread.com.
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