Hannah Gold has been ‘wrongly institutionalized’, for something that was obviously an accident; her best friend Agnes took a horrific fall (pushed?), ending up in the ICU, her life forever changed. But Hannah’s life is forever changed too, she has been sent away to languish in an institution, missing valuable time before school starts, being evaluated at a judge’s order by a doctor, and with nothing but time to figure out how to get herself out of there.
Hannah has been deemed ‘a danger to herself and others’.
The novel starts with Hannah just arriving at ‘the institute’ and the book follows her entire experience there, told in first-person and very much as though it’s comes from deep within Hannah’s complex, non-stop brain. All her anxieties and questions spill out constantly, her thinking is erratic, and she darts back and forth from the present and past as she tries to make sense of what is happening. She is highly intelligent so she knows that if she make friends and gets certain people on her side, maybe she can gain privileges and shorten her stay. Her roommate Lucy understands her, and it seems Dr. Lightfoot is going along with her plan.
This starts out feeling like a thriller, but we gradually are caught up in Hannah’s convoluted thought-processes, and it’s a novel about what it looks like when a young girl’s mental illness takes over and how her unraveling takes hold, even when she thinks she is in control.
This book is one of the most artfully brilliant books written with regards to what mental illness can look like, and I really felt gripped by every page because of it. Author Alyssa Sheinmel has done more than write a YA novel, she has written an experience on paper. People fear mental illness, and right they should. It’s scary.
I read this book and at times I felt like I was losing grasp of things just like Hannah was. And I have also been in that place myself before. Not to the same extent but I’ve been through my own personal trials that have led me to therapy, to panic attacks, to struggle with depression, anxiety, self-harm and twice (many years ago now) having a stay at the hospital (at my choice) after traumatic events. It’s frightening to feel like your mind is not your own, and to feel like you need help. In Hannah’s case, she doesn’t even realize it. And then she becomes A Danger to Herself and Others.
Mental illness has SUCH a stigma to it and it needs to change so that people will reach out to get HELP, offer help, and make help more available. People need to be able to talk about it and not turn away. Sufferers shouldn’t be getting more ill or even dying because they can’t or won’t get help. HELP shouldn’t be a dirty word. Mental health treatment is also woefully expensive in this country and often not covered by insurance.
Sheinmel is right to not even put a specific name on the illness that Hannah suffers from because at the end of the day, does it really matter? If she had done that with this story, her character, with all her flaws as well as her wonderful attributes, would have been reduced to her diagnosis. Which is what we tend to do once we know what people are suffering from. We tend to forget that they are people (like Hannah), not statistics or names of illnesses.
This is a thought-provoking, heart-wrenching read, and it will surprise you as much as it will keep you guessing. It left me with tears in my eyes and I hope that this will encourage more understanding and compassion for those affected by mental illness.
*I gratefully received this ARC as part of Miss Print’s ARC Adoption Program. Thank you!
A Danger to Herself and Others will be published on 2.5.19 by Sourcebooks.
**If you or a loved one needs help for mental illness, or you just want more information about mental health, contact NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness.