"Mental Health High" Is a Complicated Read with a Messy Protagonist

After receiving a pink slip to attend summer school, Krissa Mia Williams gets abducted and taken to a mental health facility where everyone has special abilities. After Krissa receives her diagnosis, she believes she is a monster until she gets the opportunity to prove herself.

One of the most notable aspects of D. N. Kris’s Mental Health High is how it shows the messier parts of mental health issues, especially for mental health diagnoses that aren’t widely talked about. At a certain point in the book, it is revealed that Krissa has a personality disorder that some people associate with abusive adults.

Yet Krissa is a teenager who comes off as angry, whiny, and selfish, and people write her off with their own preconceived notions even before she gets her diagnosis. Her family thinks she is a lazy rebel, while Roy, her initial guide to Mental Health High, thinks she’s stuck up. It is also mentioned that an unspecified childhood trauma resulted in her personality disorder. While Krissa may come off as unlikeable to some, her character and certain aspects of the plot show that other people’s low expectations of others can be just as damaging as more overt forms of trauma.

Another memorable feature of this book is its format. Novels in verse allow for a more poetic narrative, and this book is no exception. Certain lines display the author’s spoken word roots, such as these: “All alone / The tears finally break through / knowing my life sucks / nobody gives a fuck / and the contemptible family I was born into is just / my luck.”

Mental Health High blends poetry with urban fantasy themes, which is something I haven’t seen done before. Although the urban fantasy themes are rougher than the heartwarming feel-good magic school of other books, this doesn’t make this book unworthy of reading. With a little more development, the fantastical aspects of the book would have been even better.

One of the flaws of the book is that there are several things that go unexplained and are presented as if the reader should just go with the flow. The character Roy, for example, never formally introduces himself, and seeing Krissa suddenly mention his name despite never meeting him beforehand was confusing. There is also the fact that it is never really shown how the kids who attend Mental Health High get their special abilities, though there is an explanation of how “guiding” allows them to use mental illness as a literal power. Finally, a rival “school” that appears halfway through the book is a sinister version of Mental Health High, but we only get bare bones information about it and its goals.

Another issue of this book is the lack of female characters other than Krissa. There is one female supporting character who is an antagonist, but she is also a character who embodies the “mentally ill violent person” stereotype. Given that mental health issues are stigmatized among Black women and other women of color, it would have been nice to see Krissa bond with another Black girl with mental health issues instead of only commiserating with mentally ill male characters.

If this book had a sequel and maybe became a series, then subsequent books could address the flaws of this book and give Krissa a fuller character arc. Krissa could become more sympathetic and powerful, the supporting cast could be expanded, and this book’s unresolved plot points could be tied up. While this book does have its highlights, the lack of information and uninspired cast of characters other than the main protagonist made it a somewhat tedious read.

At the same time, this book is worth reading for Krissa alone. Krissa isn’t a quirky fun manic pixie dream girl with mental health issues — she’s bitter, tired, and angry. Krissa is basically what happens when you’re so used to hearing you’re a crappy person that you become a crappy person. Yet by the end of the book, she’s learned that even she has the potential to do the right thing. She’s not trying to be a hero, but to keep others from suffering like she has. She represents the messiness of mental health acceptance — someone who isn’t likable, but who still deserves to be given a chance to heal.

All in all, D. N. Kris’s Mental Health High is perfect for those who want a more complicated depiction of mental health issues. If you’re tired of the tormented and likable mental health lead, then give this book a try.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Ron Lach via Pexels