Mental Illness in Challenger Deep
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman. 9780061134111. 2015. Gr 9-12.
My older son, Alex, was born 27 years ago around the end of April, and by my first Mother’s Day, I was headed deep into a postpartum depression. Way back then, postpartum depression was not as well-known or accepted as it is now, either by doctors or the general public. In fact, even my therapist told me, though not in so many words, to “snap out of it.”
One day, I met a total stranger who, after cooing over Alex, announced that she had gone through postpartum depression. This woman was a godsend; not only did she hug me while I sobbed my own confession, but she brought me to a wonderful support group. This group had been established by a woman who, when she had needed it, had not been able to find any support system specifically for women with postpartum depression.
Though support groups existed here for people with depression in general, at that time this was the only safety net in the metropolitan area for women with postpartum depression. I had to drive almost an hour to attend meetings, but those women were my lifeline. I met with them for about two years before I was well enough to stop, and at my last meeting, they gave me a list of names and phone numbers to call any time.
Challenger Deep tells a similar tale about Caden Bosch, a teen with schizophrenia who suffers his first break with reality. I was at first confused; the story jumps between Caden’s life at home, his time in the hospital, and his mission aboard a pirate ship on its way to the deepest part of the ocean. What was going on? Then I realized that was the whole point. I was following Caden through his confusion and fear as his life veered between his real life and a fantasy world—but which was real, and which was fantasy?
As I read further, I began to wonder if Neal Shusterman himself had ever suffered from mental illness. His description of Caden’s confusion, the “Jello” effects of medication, and the reality of both of his worlds, seemed so real that I felt it must come from personal experience.
And it does. In his author’s note, Shusterman explains how he watched his son plunge into the depths of mental illness. After watching his son’s fall—not knowing if he would ever rise again—and his eventual healing, Neal wrote this book for readers suffering from mental illness, for their families, and for others who didn’t understand what they were going through. His son contributed his thoughts and drawings as well. Challenger Deep is not just a book to read; it is an experience. Read an interview with the Shustermans from The Horn Book.
The experiences of both Caden and the Shustermans should provide a catalyst for both honesty and empathy. Sufferers of mental illnesses are often ashamed of their weaknesses, and those ignorant of the effects of depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, and the like, can cause more harm, even unintentionally. People need to feel safe enough to tell their stories, so that others will not feel guilty or alone.
I was not able to “confess” my postpartum days with anyone outside my immediate family until I realized that, without the honest disclosure from a stranger, I would not have gotten the help that I needed. Now I often mention my experience when I coo over the newborns of total strangers.