All the Bright Places follows the romance of 17-year-olds Finch and Violet, who meet at the top of their school’s belltower where they both plan to commit suicide. Instead of jumping, though, they talk each other off the ledge and soon develop a friendship that leads to a romantic relationship. However, Finch and Violet’s struggles with mental health—and the knowledge that they were both on the brink of taking their own lives—loom large over the novel. Finch has an undiagnosed mental illness, while Violet is still struggling to recover after her older sister died in a car crash nine months before the novel begins. Whereas Violet has supportive people in her life, Finch’s parents and peers aren’t very understanding, and he feels too ashamed to have his mental illness formally diagnosed and treated. Eventually, after Finch’s mental state gradually worsens, he commits suicide. With this tragic outcome, All the Bright Places shows how stigmas about mental illness and suicide—and more broadly, the pressure for people feel to act okay even when they aren’t—can worsen mental health issues. And when people feel too isolated and ashamed to seek the help they need, the book suggests, they may be more likely to view suicide as their only option.
All the Bright Places shows that mental illness can be profoundly isolating. Although the novel itself doesn’t specify exactly what Finch is struggling with, author Jennifer Niven has confirmed that Finch has undiagnosed bipolar disorder. As a result of his illness, by the time he was in eighth grade, Finch had begun to suspect that he wasn’t actually real and was therefore invincible. But when he asked his then-best friend, Roamer, if he experienced some of the same things, Roamer turned on Finch and dubbed Finch “Theodore Freak.” Following this, Finch’s reputation as a “freak” means that he has a difficult time connecting with his fellow classmates. To many, he’s “weird” and “unpredictable,” and to some, his occasional angry outbursts even make him seem dangerous. Living with bipolar disorder, in other words, makes Finch feel alone and misunderstood. And, as a result, he hides the full extent of his problems when he becomes suicidal. At the same time, Violet struggles to cope with her grief after her older sister Eleanor’s death in a car accident nine months before the novel begins. While Violet’s mental health issue is a more short-term response to a traumatic event, the effect is profound: she feels unready to move on after Eleanor’s death, and that life isn’t worth living without Eleanor. But she also knows that admitting this is something that many people would find disturbing, so Violet keeps most of her inner turmoil to herself. Nobody knows she’s entertaining suicidal thoughts until Finch finds her at the top of the belltower.
But the novel also makes it clear that nobody is okay all the time—many people, at some time or another, deal with mental health or self-esteem issues. Indeed, the novel drives home this point in its opening chapter, when Violet and Finch both find themselves contemplating jumping off the school belltower. It’s shocking for both of them to find someone else up there, both thinking the same thoughts. The simple fact that they are surprised to learn that they’re not alone speaks to how isolating it can be to feel suicidal or otherwise experience intense emotional distress. As the novel progresses, Violet and Finch also discover that they’re not the only ones who feel hopeless. The novel eventually reveals that Violet’s former best friend, a popular girl named Amanda Monk, has also made several suicide attempts. This is a bombshell for both Finch and Violet because, in their minds, a girl as popular and with as supportive a family as Amanda couldn’t possibly have a reason to kill herself. And it’s impressions like these, the novel suggests, that make mental health issues so isolating and so difficult to talk about.
Through Violet and Finch’s differing trajectories, the novel shows the necessity of getting help for mental health issues—and the tragic consequences of feeling unable to ask for help. Life begins to improve for Violet when she and Finch fall in love and start spending more time together. As Finch encourages Violet to talk openly about her grief and the trauma she experienced, Violet ultimately comes to see that life is indeed worth living—and staying alive is also one of the best ways to honor Eleanor’s memory. Finch’s help isn’t the same as formal therapy, but it nevertheless changes Violet’s outlook on life and helps her move on from her grief. For Finch, though, his love for Violet isn’t enough on its own to overcome his undiagnosed mental illness. Finch actively refuses to be diagnosed throughout the novel, even though he implies at several points that he’s aware he has bipolar disorder. Allowing a mental health professional to diagnose him, Finch believes, will deprive him of his humanity and his individuality and turn him into nothing more than a label. It’s also disturbing for him when he attends a group counseling session for teenagers struggling with suicidal ideation. Here, he hears other kids talk about how the medication they take to manage their mental illnesses seems to take away all the things that made them who they are. This makes Finch even more unwilling to get help. As a result of his shame, perceived isolation, and worsening mental state, Finch ultimately chooses to take his own life. And while All the Bright Places is clear that no one person or group of people can be blamed for Finch’s choice, it nevertheless suggests that Finch’s suicide could perhaps have been avoided had he not felt the stigma of having a mental health issue so acutely and had instead felt comfortable asking for help. It’s essential, the novel suggests, to change what’s perceived as shameful so that others in positions like Finch’s or Violet’s feel able to ask for the help they need.
Mental Health, Stigma, and Suicide ThemeTracker
Mental Health, Stigma, and Suicide Quotes in All the Bright Places
The fact is, I was sick, but not in an easily explains flu kind of way. It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable disease just to make it simple for me and also for them. Anything would be better than the truth: I shut down again. I went blank.
The thing I don’t say is: I want to stay alive. The reason I don’t say it is because, given that fat folder in front of [Mr. Embry], he’d never believe it. And here’s something else he’d never believe—I’m fighting to be here in this shitty, messed-up world. Standing on the ledge of the bell tower isn’t about dying. It’s about having control. It’s about never going to sleep again.
“But that isn’t why. The why is that none of it matters. Not school, not cheerleading, not boyfriends or friends or parties or creative writing programs or…” She waves her arms at the world. “It’s all just time filler until we die.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Whether it’s filler or not, I’m pretty glad to be here.” If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that you need to make the most of it. “It mattered enough for you not to jump.”
Worthless. Stupid. These are the words I grew up hearing. They’re the words I try to outrun, because if I let them in, they might stay there and grow and fill me up and in, until the only thing left of me is worthless stupid worthless stupid worthless stupid freak. And then there’s nothing to do but run harder and fill myself with other words: This time will be different. This time, I will stay awake.
Dad asks about the November/December study-away program, and it takes me a minute to realize he’s talking to me. “Uh, it was okay.” Good one, Kate. I make a note to thank her. He doesn’t know about the shutting down or the trouble at school beyond sophomore year because last year, after the guitar-smashing episode, I told Principal Wertz my dad was killed in a hunting accident. He never bothered to check up on it, and now he calls my mother whenever there’s a problem, which means he actually calls Kate because Mom never bothers to check voicemail.
I look in the direction Brenda pointed and there he is. Theodore Finch leans against an SUV, hands in pockets, like he has all the time in the world and he expects me. I think of the Virginia Woolf lines, the ones from The Waves: “Pale, with dark hair, the one who is coming is melancholy, romantic. And I am arch and fluent and capricious, for he is melancholy, he is romantic. He is here.”
Water is peaceful. I am at rest. In the water, I am safe and pulled in where I can’t get out. Everything slows down—the noise and the racing of my thoughts. I wonder if I could sleep like this, here on the bottom of the bathtub, if I wanted to sleep, which I don’t. I let my mind drift. I hear words forming as if I’m sitting at the computer already.
In March of 1941, after three serious breakdowns, Virginia Woolf wrote a note to her husband and walked to a nearby river. She shoved heavy stones into her pocket and dove into the water. “Dearest,” the note began, “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times…So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”
I made the mistake of talking about it once. A few years ago, I asked my then good friend Gabe Romero if he could feel sound and see headaches […] and he went home and told his parents, and they told my teacher, who told the principal, who told my parents, who said to me, Is it true, Theodore? Are you telling stories to your friends? The next day it was all over school, and I was officially Theodore Freak. One year later, I grew out of my clothes because, it turns out, growing fourteen inches in a summer is easy. It’s growing out of a label that’s hard.
In 2013, a man in Pennsylvania committed suicide via carbon monoxide, but when his family tried to rescue him, they were overcome by the fumes and every single one of them died before rescue crews could save them.
I think of my mom and Decca and Kate, and then I hit the opener, and up goes the door, and out I go into the wild blue yonder. For the first mile or so, I feel high and excited, like I just ran into a burning building and saved lives, like I’m some sort of hero.
But then a voice in me says, You’re no hero. You’re a coward. You only saved them from yourself.
I can go downstairs right now and let my mom know how I’m feeling—if she’s even home—but she’ll tell me to help myself to the Advil in her purse and that I need to relax and stop getting myself worked up, because in this house there’s no such thing as being sick unless you can measure it with a thermometer under the tongue. Things fall into categories of black and white—bad mood, bad temper, loses control, feels sad, feels blue.
For once, I don’t want to be anyone but Theodore Finch, the boy she sees. He understands what it is to be elegant and euphoric and a hundred different people, most of them flawed and stupid, part asshole, part screwup, part freak, a boy who wants to be easy for the folks around him so that he doesn’t worry them and, most of all, easy for himself. A boy who belongs—here in the world, here in his own skin. He is exactly who I want to be and what I want my epitaph to say: The Boy Violet Markey Loves.
“What are you most afraid of?”
I think, I’m most afraid of Just be careful. I’m most afraid of the Long Drop. I’m most afraid of Asleep and impending, weightless doom. I’m most afraid of me.
The thing I know about bipolar disorder is that it’s a label. One you give crazy people. I know this because I’ve taken junior-year psychology and I’ve seen movies and I’ve watched my father in action for almost eighteen years, even though you could never slap a label on him because he would kill you. Labels like bipolar say This is why you are the way you are. This is who you are. They explain people away as illnesses.
Most people haven’t heard of [the Nest Houses], but one old man tells me, “Sorry you came all this way. I’m afraid they been ate up by the weather and the elements.”
Just like all of us. The Nest Houses have reached their life expectancy. I think of the mud nest we made for the cardinal, all those years ago, and wonder if it’s still there. I imagine his little bones in his little grave, and it is the saddest thought in the world.
I want to get away from these kids who never did anything to anyone except be born with different brains and different wiring […] I want to get away from the stigma they all clearly feel just because they have an illness of the mind as opposed to, say, an illness of the lungs or blood. I want to get away from all the labels.
“Why do you do that? Don’t you get tired of people talking about you?”
She goes quiet.
“I do it because it reminds me to be here, that I’m still here and I have a say in the matter.”
She puts one leg in the car and says, “I guess now you know you’re not the only freak.” It’s the nicest thing she’s ever said to me.
“Listen, I’m the freak. I’m the weirdo. I’m the troublemaker. I start fights. I let people down. Don’t make Finch mad, whatever you do. Oh, there he goes again, in one of his moods. Moody Finch. Angry Finch. Unpredictable Finch. Crazy Finch. But I’m not a compilation of symptoms. Not a casualty of shitty parents and an even shittier chemical makeup. Not a problem. Not a diagnosis. Not an illness. Not something to be rescued. I’m a person.”
“He’ll be back. He always comes back.” That’s just his thing. It’s what he does.
I want to say to her and Charlie and Brenda, to Kate, to his mom: Doesn’t anyone care why he comes and goes? Have you ever stopped to think that something might be wrong with this?
All I know is what I wonder: Which of my feelings are real? Which of the mes is me? There is only one me I’ve ever really liked, and he was good and awake as long as he could be.
I couldn’t stop the cardinal’s death, and this made me feel responsible. In a way, I was—we were, my family and I—because it was our house that was built where his tree used to be, the one he was trying to get back to. But maybe no one could have stopped it.
“You have been in every way all that anyone could be…If anybody could have saved me it would have been you.”
In all his words, the preacher doesn’t mention suicide. The family is calling his death an accident because they didn’t find a proper note […]. I stand, thinking how it wasn’t an accident at all and how “suicide victim” is an interesting term. The victim part of it implies they had no choice. And maybe Finch didn’t feel like he had a choice, or maybe he wasn’t trying to kill himself at all but just going in search of the bottom.
She looks at me. “In those moments, none of it matters. It’s like that stuff is happening to someone else because all you feel is dark inside, and that darkness just kind of takes over. You don’t even really think about what might happen to the people you leave behind, because all you can think about is yourself.”