Dead Happy author Josh Silver is using books to address the LGBTQ+ mental health crisis

Dead Happy author Josh Silver is using books to address the LGBTQ+ mental health crisis

Author Josh Silver didn’t intend to end his debut YA novel HappyHead on a cliffhanger. Then again, he wasn’t sure anyone would read the book at all, let alone be interested enough to care.

But they did. The book was nominated for a 2024 Carnegie Medal, and included on Amazon’s 2023 list of best YA books. Rocketman star Taron Egerton has acquired the rights to bring the story to the screen.

The cliffhanger, then, didn’t go down too well. “Some people got really mad at me. The DMs were pretty hectic at one point,” Silver tells PinkNews. 

After a year-long wait, fans now have the second book in the series, Dead Happy. “It would have been sad if the book hadn’t sold, they would have just ended the series there. That would have been quite difficult for me,” Silver says. “Thankfully, I got to finish it.”

HappyHead, and its sequel, follow Seb, a dejected gay teenager who is living through an “epidemic of unhappiness”. He’s offered a place at a retreat which claims it can fix the happiness crisis. Part of the programme involves engaging in increasingly brutal challenges.

Despite Seb falling for Finn, another queer teen on the retreat, “the Happier Programme is asking him to be in a heteronormative relationship”, Silver goes on to say.

“Seb has been a people-pleaser his whole life and feels the notion of happiness is synonymous with the idea of success.

“It’s about Seb’s growth into fighting against the system that wants him to be a certain way, accepting who he is, and being able to stand up for other people who are part of a community.”

The character is a reflection of Silver’s younger self. “I struggled with my mental health throughout my life,” he reveals. “I was in active addiction, alcohol and drugs.”

He trained at London’s prestigious RADA drama school before starring in big productions on Broadway and in the West End, including alongside Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51. After several years, he realised the acting industry was fuelling his mental health struggle. And walked away.

“The anger that fuels [Seb]…  I identify with,” Silver says. “He gets to breaking point, where he realises: ‘I can’t do this any more. I can’t live like this’. He makes a choice to stand against it.”

During the pandemic, Silver retrained as a mental health nurse, working with teens on an in-patient ward. It was there that the idea for HappyHead really started to take shape. He views the book series as a “dystopian version” of where he fears the UK is headed in terms of the way LGBTQ+ young people and their mental health are treated. 

“I just write from what makes me angry,” he says. “I was really worried and scared about what’s going on in the mental health system.”

There is a lot that makes the author angry about the way his country deals with anyone living with mental health issues. He laments how, from what he’s seen, young people are often “lumped” together under the diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) – then dismissed as “attention-seeking” when they try to seek support. 

He is frustrated by the lack of funds available for person-focused therapy on wards, and the fact that mental-health professionals are “led to blanket diagnose” and “blanket categorise” people who are struggling. “Terrible things are normalised,” he says.

While he no longer works as a nurse full time – he occasionally works shifts – he still hears from former colleagues who are “absolutely terrified of the way the system works, and often feel stuck, banging their head against the wall”.

Among the fan reviews for HappyHead are some written by mental healthcare professionals who recognise their own tough working environments. “I can tell you that parts of it were so realistic, I felt it in my bones,” reads one comment.

Silver believes that a culture of fear in the industry prevents those professionals voicing their concerns. “When you’re working in the system, it’s very hard to speak out about the stuff because you don’t want to rock the boat,” he says.

He has a third book coming out next year, separate from the HappyHead world, which will explore the detrimental impact that social media is having on young people’s mental health.

“With social media, nowadays, mental health has become a bit of an accessory. It can become monetised. In some extreme cases, people use it to sell products. I find it very scary,” he bristles.

Social media users have turned serious issues – such as suicidal ideation and depression – into topics they can make fun of. The new book will be about how “trauma can be a commodity now”.

The ever-growing mental health crisis among young people has come from somewhere other than social media, though. In 2017, an average of one in 10 teens experienced symptoms of poor mental health. By 2022, this was one in four.

“We’ve got the government who I am very angry about. I’m not shy in saying that,” Silver says sternly. “They’re limiting the support for these teenagers who need help.”

Josh Silver’s new book will delve into the effects social media has on mental health. (Supplied)

Silver sees the Conservatives as having a particularly damning impact on young LGBTQ+ people, like Seb in HappyHead, who are watching their rights and identities being mocked and toyed with for political gain. While he was on the ward, numerous queer teens were admitted.

“That’s because of the rhetoric and language being spouted by the government, and that comes from a patriarchal, heteronormative ideal that they want to uphold. That filters down,” he says.

LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans and non-binary individuals, are statistically more likely to experience severe mental health issues than their straight peers.

It’s transgender and non-binary people who have largely borne the brunt of the politically curated culture wars, across party lines. 

“I get so angry about the way we are being drip-fed fear around this demographic of people who are just trying to be themselves. I wanted to write this book to say it’s dangerous.

“Mental health is so political. Being gay is so political. I feel they’re linked,” the author adds.

Growing up gay in rural Cumbria, the writer felt that intently. He was born into an “incredibly religious” home and spent his childhood fearing he would “burn in hell” because of his sexuality.

Through HappyHead, he’s been able to spend time in schools, and has seen how the world has changed since his time in the education system. The children of today are largely “clued up” when it comes to LGBTQ+ identities, but work remains to be done.

“There are still undertones of fear around LGBTQ+ people. I always say to the kids when I get in front of them that I’m gay, and I always feel a slight tension,” Silver admits.

At one school, he dealt with homophobic gestures from youngsters in the front row of his talk. But it was the teachers’ response that really irked him: there was no response. The headteacher brushed him off when he complained.

“No one did anything,” he says. “If the teachers don’t have the language or the knowledge of how to interact with homophobia and transphobia, then we’re screwed because nothing is being done.”

With such powerful messages to share, it’s a blessing that HappyHead and Dead Happy have had the reaction they have. Silver is just pleased the books have been read by their intended audience: young queer people, and young people on mental health wards. 

“I’m glad that people want to pick up the [new] one. That’s really exciting for me,” he says. The second book, in his eyes, is better than the first. “I’m really excited for people to read it. It gets really weird and dark.”

As so often, art imitates life.

HappyHead and Dead Happy are available to buy now.

The post Dead Happy author Josh Silver is using books to address the LGBTQ+ mental health crisis appeared first on PinkNews | Latest lesbian, gay, bi and trans news | LGBTQ+ news.

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