Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation explores the complexities of adolescent mental health under neoliberal capitalism in twentieth- and twenty-first-century U.S. fiction about and for adolescents. Drawn on research that defines youth citizenship as responsibilities-based in nature, this project outlines the ways contemporary young adult (YA) novels of mental distress reveal an inextricable link between adolescent mental health and the conditions of what I term productive citizenship. Constituting my theorization of productive citizenship are three distinct tenets adolescents must adhere to: (1) displaying the motivation to achieve specific goals; (2) showing a propensity for self-reliance and individuality; and (3) accepting the translation of political concerns into personal, psychological issues and resolving those issues through individual treatments. Should an adolescent refuse or be unable to uphold any of these tenets, they become a risk to society and must be tamed. I contend that contemporary YA novels of mental distress detail this taming process. My introduction reviews the relevant research to this discussion, which includes but is not limited to Marxist and Youth criticism, as well as contemporary YA scholarship. Chapter one considers how the history of productive citizenship threads together with the literary roots of adolescent mental distress in novels by J.D. Salinger, Joanne Greenberg, John Neufeld, and Virginia Hamilton. In Chapter two, I interpret therapeutic treatment as a contemporary disciplinary practice of femininity in novels by Julie Halpern, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Meg Haston, while in chapter three I examine how masculine silence informs adolescent mental health in novels by Stephen Chobksy, Michael Thomas Ford, and Adib Khorram. Lastly, chapter four explores the use of psychiatric spaces in novels by Ned Vizzini and Francisco X. Stork to argue how the depiction of these facilities undermines the neoliberal definitions of “health” by replicating the living conditions of a pre-industrial society. Collectively, these novels inevitably urge the acceptance of broader political concerns as individual issues by centring the symptoms of distress rather than its root causes. As a result, the model of young adulthood encouraged within the neoliberal capitalism of many recent YA novels of mental distress is productive citizenship.
Summary for Lay Audience
This dissertation is about adolescent mental health in the contemporary United States, and how teenagers struggling with mental illness or mental distress are pressured to be active contributors to society. They are pressured, for instance, by parents, therapists, medical professionals, family, and friends, to work through their mental health issues, as they have a responsibility to become productive adults in the workforce. As a result of this pressure, the mental health support these teenagers receive is designed with specific outcomes in mind. This support is considered successful when the teenagers receiving it display three important characteristics: (1) the motivation to achieve specific goals; (2) a sense of independence and a self-reliant attitude; and (3) the acceptance that they need personal therapy or medication to treat their mental health concerns. On the surface, these outcomes appear to be noble and positive. However, these outcomes focus solely on how individual adolescents respond to distress. These treatments, therefore, are not designed to address the external factors causing adolescent mental distress.
By considering a range of contemporary young adult (YA) novels, I examine the mental health treatments offered to characters with mental illness or who experience mental distress. By examining the cultural narratives and stories written about this issue, I glean insight into what is considered a “happy ending” for adolescents with mental illness. I specifically explore how the mental health treatments designed to secure these happy endings are constructed differently depending on an adolescent’s gender. Ultimately, however, all of the adolescent protagonists I discuss are inevitably encouraged to become what I call productive citizens. In other words, they must display the characteristics that illustrate their potential to be productive workers in society. At the same time, they must accept the sole responsibility for their mental health, while the broader social, political, and economic pressures they face, which contribute to their distress, remain unchanged. Thus, this dissertation considers the relationship between adolescent mental health and the system of neoliberal capitalism, and how the mental health treatments available within that system are insufficient in truly addressing the root causes of our current mental health crisis.
Johnston, Jeremy TL, "Capital Distress: Productive Citizenship and Mental Health in Adolescent Literature" (2021). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 7876.