Mental health has made quite a transition in recent years. We’re opening up more and addressing the factors that stress our mental wellbeing. We’re discussing best practices and healing methods for those who having to adjust. Maybe most importantly, we’re acknowledging that there’s no one way to address mental health.
For me, literature is an amazing way for people to express what life is like for the non-normative thinker. In honor of that sentiment and Mental Health Awareness Month, here are six books that I’ve loved for their honesty on the subject.
[These books cover a wide range of mental health topics including depression, anxiety, suicide, PTSD, sexual abuse, and others.]
1) Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
I couldn’t possibly make this list without including one John Green novel and Turtles All the Way Down is by far my favorite for its portrayal of OCD and health anxiety. Aza’s struggle with mental health is as much a driving part of the story as Scout’s curiosity or Hamlet’s ambition.
When John Green was asked about where the idea for Turtles came from, he said “he wanted to write a detective story about a detective whose brain disorder is unhelpful.” It’s a more honest approach to how mental health conditions are perceived by the people who have them.
The story itself is beautifully told, as are all of John Green’s books in my opinion, but none of that takes away from the poignant expression of self-love and self-care. Just like a “thought spiral”, Aza’s mental stability is at the forefront of the novel; everything else is just a backdrop.
2) It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Craig Gilner is a teenager with a lot of uncertainty. That’s not uncommon but Vizzini does an amazing job of communicating Craig’s sense of alienation, of being overwhelmed, and his anxiety.
When these feelings come to the surface, in full force, Craig ends up getting help. The process isn’t easy for him nor is it quick. It takes a long time, a lot of introspection, and some understanding and supportive people to get him back on his feet. Vizzini’s story demonstrates the complicated hurdles that have to be overcome in a way that’s honest and humorous.
That may make it seem like a relatively happy story but getting better doesn’t make depression disappear. The road to recovery is long and, for some, it never stops. That’s the beauty of It’s Kind of a Funny Story. There isn’t one singular thing that helps Craig find happiness – it’s a whole world of decisions and discovery.
3) Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five is a forward-thinking book for a lot of reasons. Aliens and warfare and life Americana all contrast each other and create a story that is both upsettingly real and awesomely fantastic. It has served as inspiration for countless anti-war models but what’s most notable about the book is its blunt portrayal of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Actually, the term PTSD wasn’t known then as it is now. Billy Pilgrim’s difficulty handling life post-World War II is as much a reflection of Vonnegut as a mirror. I think that’s what makes Slaughterhouse-Five such a multi-dimensional story.
It’s an honest account of trauma and, in a way, healing from it. The revisionist history of horrible experiences can be incredibly beneficial to people handling PTSD and that’s how many readers will interpret Billy Pilgrim’s alien escapades.
4) The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky
Chbosky’s bildungsroman zeroes on in on PTSD as well but Charlie’s trauma is very different. The long-term effects of child abuse and sex-related crimes are on display too and none of these deeply troubling topics invalidates another.
Beyond Charlie, there are many characters in The Perks of Being a Wallflower who are having to coming to terms with their own abuse and no two people in the story process their experiences in the same way. By this, Chbosky accomplishes two things: 1) demonstrating how common trauma and abuse are in society and 2) demonstrating how un-uniformly trauma is handled.
The book even starts out by showing how unaddressed mental health needs aren’t just troubling; they’re destructive. We’re not all the same but we all have to learn how to simultaneously care for ourselves and others – regardless of how difficult that may be.
5) Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Semple’s book is told through the eyes of Bernadette’s daughter, Bee; but it’s Bernadette who sits at the center of the story. While people in Seattle see Bernadette as quirky, eccentric, and, at the very least, high strung, there’s a lot more going on under the surface.
Bernadette is not “fine” and she’s not insane. She’s experienced personal trauma that’s keeping her from living the life she wanted. She’s torn between caring for her family and caring for herself – she’s just not covering it up the way most other people would. At her core, Bernadette is a brilliant and talented human being who’s on her own journey of self-discovery and healing.
All this doesn’t change the fact that Bee loves her mom “just the way she is” and that’s a pretty awesome way to characterize the importance of personal relationships in all of our lives without discrediting the underlying problems in the Fox family’s lives.
6) At Home in the World by Joyce Maynard
There’s a lot more to Maynard’s memoir than anyone could expect. Though it’s claim to fame may be overtly focused on Maynard’s relationship with J.D. Salinger, its most valuable chapters are the ones that tell how Maynard struggled to be truly herself.
Depression and eating disorders are some of the most common afflictions which makes the unwillingness to talk about them seem sort of unbalanced. But Maynard presents these, and all the other ups and downs and sideways she experienced, in a genuine and honest way.
I’ll be honest that it took me a while to get through the whole book. It’s a heavy read and most chapters leave you feeling sad and sometimes sorry. At Home in the World doesn’t have a particularly happy ending but that’s because the story is a real person’s life told as they experienced it. If nothing else, Maynard does a great job of penning a story that reminds us that we’re not alone in any of our struggles.
All photos from Amazon.
Quote from John Green is from TIME’s 2017 interview on the novel.