Mental Health & Turtles All the Way Down

by | Sep 4, 2018 | Literature, Writing, & More, YA Books | 0 comments

My first experience with John Green occurred a year or so ago when I was looking for an entertaining way to brush up on world history, primarily as a Bible study tool. I stumbled upon Crash Course: World History and was immediately drawn in. Somewhere in that time frame, my husband and I watched The Fault in Our Stars, but I’m honestly unsure when I put two and two together on that one. I remember being surprised that this endearing, nerdy history guy wrote the type of novels that I enjoy the least (that being the type that is just too realistic for anyone’s own good). Fast forward a bit and I see Turtles All the Way Down listed on my Libby app. I downloaded the sample, read the first line, thought “man, that’s good,” then proceeded to not read it for a few weeks. Maybe I still had The Fault in Our Stars in my mind.

Then, one night recently, we stumbled upon John and his brother Hank’s YouTube channel, vlogbrothers. Lots of laughter, lots of nodding in agreement ensued. A few nights later, I downloaded Turtles in its entirety and began reading. A couple of nights after that, I stayed up entirely too late finishing it. My husband told me that I was making this a bad habit (having just stayed up until almost 3 reading The Cursed Child in one sitting the week before). My response? I just needed it to be over.

I meant that in the most positive way possible. A few minutes after that remark, I looked back at him and said, “I completely forgot until just now that John Green has OCD. No wonder it felt so real.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt as though as I was in a character’s head in the way I felt reading Turtles. For days now, I’ve had the recurring thought: “You never know. You just never know what’s going on inside.” I couldn’t help but feel so thankful for my mind: if I needed to stay up reading just so that I could get out of Aza’s mind, I couldn’t imagine feeling as she did, imprisoned in her own, with no hope of escape.

And I speak as someone who struggles with anxiety. If I had to identify the “thorn in my side,” the one problem that stays close to me and causes me to struggle with my faith, it would be worry and anxiety. I have felt trapped in my own mind. I have begged for the fears to stop. I have breathed myself through panic attacks. I have felt misunderstood and stigmatized for my thoughts. Yet, it still doesn’t compare to Aza. And I know it doesn’t compare to those who suffer with mental health problems.

The facts are staggering. Twenty percent of adults and ten percent of  young people have experienced a mental health issue or period of depression. Four percent live with serious mental illness, like Aza. We know people are struggling, yet we label them with falsehoods and stereotypes: they are violent, unable to function in society, could change if they really wanted to, or are beyond hope. All lies, all walls we build to separate ourselves from those unlike us, when the fact remains that it could be us struggling. A change in our genetics, an illness, a trauma – any of these could rock our world. Even more important, those who struggle are not so different from ourselves. They are people who love, work, and live the same as we do. 

When the book was finished, I laid in bed and uttered scraps of prayers, thanking God for the strength to begin taking control of my thoughts again. I thanked Him that I even had the ability to do so. I felt profound thankfulness for my own mental health and deep sadness for those not as fortunate.

And I felt thankful for John Green – thankful that he is able to use his platform and his talent to shed light on this reality. Like so many people, I know about mental illness, but I didn’t, and still don’t, understand mental illness. Finishing TurtlesI felt the closest that I have ever felt to understanding. I felt the greatest amount of empathy, compassion, and love for the people who suffer. I felt the strongest desire for them to receive care. I felt their desperation to be understood and to feel hope.

My mind turns, as it naturally does, to my students. As educators, we are trained to recognize signs and make referrals. We’re supposed to be aware, alert, ready. Yet most days, I feel as though I’m just wading through the things I have to do, oblivious to the pain around me. At times, I hear stories about former students and wonder, “Why didn’t I know when they were mine?  What could I have done differently?” I almost always come back to the same answer: I just have to be looking. I have to see the individual, not just a name on my roster. I have to be intentional about loving them, first and foremost. The data, the reports, the goals – they’re really all secondary.

Less than twenty percent of our young people who struggle with a mental health issue receive the treatment that is needed. And treatment works! A treatment regimen, tailored to the needs of the individual, of medication and/or therapy is effective at providing a better quality of life for those with a mental health problem. 

Equally as important as recognizing mental health problems in our students is preventing them. Although genetics and family history play a role, social factors are important as well. We’re well aware that many of our students endure hardships at home and at school; hardships that can have a severe impact on their mental well-being. As hard as it is, it’s so important that we not only be on the lookout for signs of abuse and bullying, but also provide the love and support they need (in addition to making the appropriate reports and referrals).

I’ve worked with teachers who have called their students derogatory names related to their mental and behavioral status, both in front of students and alone with teachers. I’m ashamed to think of how often I’ve let it slide in an effort to not cause conflict at work. By letting this behavior continue, I’m only exacerbating the problem. All students, regardless of their individual struggles or weaknesses, deserve our utmost love and respect. Advocating for it is just one way we can have such an impact! When we treat all students with respect, make known our desire to help, and connect them with the appropriate professionals, we’re helping prevent mental illness and ensure that those already struggling from a mental health problem get the support they need. 

Supporting our students in all aspects of their life has manifold impacts on them as individuals and on society as a whole. We often concentrate on the societal impacts of literacy or standardized-test scores, but preventing and addressing mental health disorders is just as important. When students get the care and love they need, they get a better education, improved quality and duration of life, and improved family relationships. Society, in turn, experiences lower crime rates, stronger economies, and lower health care costs. Although I firmly believe that we should help others solely out of love and respect for them, I am thankful for how acting in love can cause a chain reaction of good – even if it’s good we don’t always see immediately. 

Having spent a few days processing the book, I haven’t decided if I can give it a blanket recommendation. I don’t know that I would suggest it for my brother, who deals with fairly severe social anxiety. I don’t know that I would advise it for my sister, who is easily molded to take on the characteristics of what she reads. But I would recommend it for teachers, for parents, for counselors. I would recommend it for those who know or who may come into contact with people who have mental health problems. I would recommend it for anyone who, like me, is less aware than he should be and wants that to change. I recognize that Turtles is fiction – but fiction, in my experience, can be more informative than exposition. We are a culture built on stories and through stories we learn, grow, and change. Aza’s story is meaningful and important because of what it represents. And what it represents is hope.

All information in italics was sourced from
I’ve done my best to use language that is respectful and loving towards those struggling and living with mental health problems, but I recognize that terminology and research changes frequently. If I have said something or used language that is in any way offensive or incorrect, please do not hesitate to let me know! But, I also ask that any comments or communications bear in mind the love and solidarity that was my intention. I believe that we’re all in this together and that progress is born of compromise and unity.
Lastly, if you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health problem, please reach out to the appropriate professionals for support.
  • Emergency Services – 911
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1.800.273.8255 or chat
  • Treatment Referral (for treatment services in your area) – 1.877.726.4727
  • More information: Mental