I have actually been meaning to write this post for a while, but when I saw that this week is Mental Health Awareness Week, I had to do it. Lately, I’ve been trying to read more diverse books, which includes books that address mental illness. The more I read, the more I have noticed a distinction between mental illness and intellectual or cognitive disability – you can read more about the differences between them here. I’m a firm believer in reading books (or articles or essays or anything else, really) that open your mind, and allow you to experience things you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. For example, if you read a book with a character who suffers from depression, although you might never have experienced depression yourself, you are able to, at least a little bit, through this character’s eyes. And maybe that experience will make you more understanding, more empathetic, and more perceptive when it comes to mental illness.
The books below all deal with mental illness, and are great starting points if you are looking to explore mental illness in literature. I tried to choose a variety of books – there’s a classic, a contemporary young adult book, two memoirs, and a critically-acclaimed adult novel; books whose main characters have mental illnesses, and books whose main characters interact with other characters who have mental illnesses; short books, (very) long books, and even a novella. I wanted to show that, regardless of what you like to read, you can easily find a book that addresses mental illness in some way.
- Girl, Interrupted by Susana Kaysen. This is perhaps the one of the most obvious picks on this list. The majority of the Kaysen’s memoir takes place in a psychiatric hospital (the same one that, at some point, also housed Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles), and provides a glimpse into mental healthcare in the late 1960s. Girl, Interrupted examines what it means to be sane or insane, and gives a first-hand account of mental illness and recovery.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This book is about four friends, one of whom suffers from severe depression. As you learn about him and his past – which is one of the most heart-wrenching things I have ever read – you begin to see how and why he ended up like he did. By the time his story is completely revealed, I completely empathized with him. I loved that this book deeply addresses mental illness, without stigmatizing it.
- The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I like this novella because it shines a light on mental health, which seems fairly rare for the 19th-century. It is about a woman whose husband and doctor confine her to a bedroom and forbid her from doing anything (even reading and writing) because she is suffering from postpartum depression (though Gilman doesn’t use that term). Understandably, after having nothing to do but stare at her wallpaper, she goes insane.
- Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. This book is kind of famous for it’s craziness. It is one of Burrough’s memoirs (he’s written several); this one addresses his relationship with his mentally ill mother and the time he spent living with her psychiatrist, who, arguably, is also mentally ill. It is so wildly bizarre that it almost doesn’t seem real. And yet, there is a realness about Burroughs’s portrayal of mental illness, and how living with a mentally ill parent can profoundly affect a child.
- Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon. I can’t say too much about this book without spoiling it, because the mental illness aspect of it is actually a plot twist. I think this book did an excellent job illustrating how one person’s mental illness – and refusal to address it – can have major consequences for their loved ones.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and I hope I’ve encouraged you to read more books about mental illness. I think it’s important to have an understanding of mental health, because, chances are, you will come across someone who is suffering from a mental illness, whether you know it or not.
As a teenager, I suffered from depression for several years. Because of the stigma surrounding mental healthcare, I did not receive any help. There was a prevailing mentality that mental illness is “the kind of thing that happens to other people, not us” that “it’s not that serious” and you can choose to stop it. I can’t count the number of times I was told to “just smile” – a nearly impossible task for someone suffering from depression, the effort of which often made me feel worse. I felt lost, and acting happy actually lowered my confidence, because I felt like a fraud. Working my way out of that hole alone was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. And because I was not given help, I spent nearly ten years being utterly miserable. No one should have to go through that. Especially alone.
Opening your eyes to mental illness can help you identify it in yourself and others, and learn how to effectively help those you love. Reading is a great way to start, and a first step in making mental illness a topic people feel comfortable talking about. Talking about mental illness can save lives, so I encourage you to use this week as an excuse to do so.
If you’ve read any books that deal with mental illness, I would love to hear about them – so please share them in the comments below!