Mental disease is an illness, not a character flaw


Review: Thomas Horler

Turtles all the Way Down (Penguin)


I have been a fan of John Green since before I knew he was an author. I discovered him on YouTube giving a lighthearted review of world history.

He opened the first episode announcing that there would be a test, saying:

“The test will measure whether you are an informed, engaged, and productive citizen of the world, and it will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and dorm rooms and in places of worship.

“You will be tested on first dates, in job interviews, while watching football, and while scrolling through your Twitter feed. The test will judge your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages, whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric, and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context. The test will last your entire life, and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that, when taken together, will make your life yours. And everything, everything, will be on it.”

From that moment I was hooked. I went on to discover the other YouTube channels he and his brother Hank had created, and then his books. On all these platforms there is a consistent but subtle philosophy: imagine the complexity of others.

Green’s books explore the idea in an easy way for his young adult audience to grasp. They usually focus on the teen learning that the object of their affection is a flawed, wonderful human being, not merely a perfect angel. And there is always a mystery.

With Turtles all the Way Down Green has written a much more grown-up young adult novel. The story follows 16-year-old Aza as she and her friends try to find a missing billionaire and claim a huge reward. The problem is that Aza suffers from anxiety; and at times she is paralysed by the all-consuming thought that half the cells in her body are bacteria.

Turtles asks the reader to imagine living with intrusive thoughts, to imagine what it is like knowing your obsessions are irrational but being unable to do anything about it, hating yourself for being so weak as to give in simply for the moment’s peace it brings. John Green has had and continues have mental health problems and his descriptions make Aza’s anguish real and something we can relate to.

In the past diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS were shameful and hidden, and in the darkness misconceptions and fear spread. Mental illness is like cancer – it is scary and dangerous and common. But like cancer it is a disease that is treatable, it is not a character flaw. And it is a disease that affects people, not mad men or crazies but people in your school, office and families. The more we try to imagine others complexly the more we can be there for friends who need us.

Like all Green’s books this is a tragedy. As in life there are no happy endings, only happy moments and sad moments. But it is also a coming-of-age adventure, the sort where much is gained but at a cost.

Turtles All the Way Down is a great read, I can’t recommend it enough. It is beautifully written and at times heartbreaking. Please read it and share it and try to imagine others complexly.


4 thoughts on “Mental disease is an illness, not a character flaw

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