Mental Health In Literature

Mental illness is not a topic that's particularly easy to talk about. Perhaps this is why there is so much written about it. I can't speak for all the authors, obviously. Personally though I find being able to write about these ideas, namely anxiety and depression, can help make sense of thoughts. Ideas I can't always express verbally in words. Ideas that are complex, multifaceted and yes, sometimes overwhelming. That being said, being able to read the words of others on these topics can often be a great comfort and relief if you do feel like an outsider for example. Not that I am saying mental illness=alienating, although it can sometimes feel that way. Perhaps you just want to understand what someone in your life may be going through or feeling. Quick disclaimer, it has been a while since I've read some of these books but I am going to try to list all the disorders and themes included because some may be triggering and best approached with caution. I've read a fair bit on this topic and of what I have read, these are the books that address the topics in the most effective way. Without unnecessarily rose-tinting and making light of significant concepts. This post may be long so I suggest you get comfy and if you do find yourself unsure whether a certain book is for you, feel free to ask in the comments or message me on social media. 

The Accidental x Ali Smith: I've been doing a bit of background reading on Ali Smith, as well of course as immersing myself in her work and one of the recurring themes is that of love and loss. The grief we feel for the passing of someone in our lives, the disappearances and the swiftness that is the passing of time. Astrid, the teenaged protagonist adventures off to Norwich for a summer holiday with her family and their lives are forever changed by the arrival of a traveling student, Amber. Like many of Smith's stories, this book is multilayered and there are many themes and motifs at play here; cameras, time, love, death, nature to name but a few. // Themes: Suicide, bullying, romance, family, disordered relationships, infidelity, creativity, cinema. 

Wishful Drinking x Carrie Fisher: There is only so much of Carrie Fisher's writing available but she certainly made an impact with her frankness and openness surrounding the discussion of mental health, therapy, dealing with addiction and the likes. She did it in a way that was incredibly honest, yet funny as well. As she said, life is always about 'finding the funny'. While I couldn't relate to her stories of substance abuse, I still found this a very refreshing, honest take on living with mental health and the effects it has on us+the world around us. // Themes: Drug and alcohol addiction, manic depression, celebrity, the media, family. 

An Extraordinary Theory of Objects x Stephanie Lacava: This book has been mentioned a few times on the blog now and while mental health is not the overriding theme of this book, it is something that is taken into account. Lacava faced at times debilitating anxiety but also depression. I've included this here because her writing on high-school bullying particularly resonated. As well as her associations with objects and their significance as both comforters and sources of nostalgia. // Themes: Identity, depression, anxiety, art, creativity, association. 

Girl, Interrupted x Susanna Kaysen: In my misguidedness I assumed this was a novel but it is in fact a memoir. It's a quick read albeit an intense one. I read it in snippets across a week or so's train trips. Kaysen spent two years being treated for depression in the psychiatric ward of a hospital that also once looked after the likes of Ray Charles and Sylvia Plath among others. Given it takes place during 1967, the attitudes and I guess overall understanding of depression was starkly contrasted to how it is today. I found the comments made to her by therapists and their assessments particularly fascinating. Actually I found this whole book fascinating. // Themes: Identity, the journey to adulthood, depression, mental health treatment, friendship. 

Where'd You Go Bernadette x Maria Semple: A quirky, Wes Anderson-esque tale about the far from ordinary Bernadette Fox. Former renowned architect, now reclusive with clearly undiagnosed psychological disorders. This book isn't all bleak though and it is in fact quite entertaining, despite the obviously dark subject matter. You will laugh but also cry in parts. Then again, I cry easily in books and films so perhaps I am not the best judge here. Another quick read too, given the book unfolds through letters, emails and memos more than traditional narrative methods. // Themes: Family, the pressures of success, bipolar disorder, infidelity, bullying. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower x Stephen Chbosky: My all-time favourite novel which follows Charlie, a high school freshman and his experiences and almost fly-on-the-wall observations of high school and outsiderdom. Such a freakin' relatable read and coming of age novel. I recommend this all the time and gift it quite a bit as well because it's one of those books I think everyone should read. // Themes: Childhood trauma, adolescence, pop culture appreciation, post traumatic stress disorder. 

It's Kind Of A Funny Story x Ned Vizzini: One of my internet pals Hannah actually sent me this book and I've only read it the once but I remember finding it so refreshing and brilliant. I need to revisit it soon, it's well due a reread. Craig, a fifteen year-old faces immense pressure from a prestigious school he attends which eventually manifests itself into various disorders so he admits himself to a psychiatric ward. At first he feels he doesn't belong, among those with perhaps more challenging demands. Over time he eventually finds more common ground with the patients and solace through therapy. It's not all doom-and-gloom and is in fact really quite humorous. Definitely another, laugh+cry and feel all the feels kind of read. // Themes: Depression, peer pressure, self acceptance, identity. 

Looking For Alaska x John Green: Another novel I love and am secretly quite pleased has never been made into a film. If only because I'm scared any visual recreation will tarnish it. Miles goes to boarding school where he meets the infamous Alaska Young. Infamous, yet mysterious. She is enigmatic. They unite over Miles' love of famous last words, pranks, a lil' bit of underaged drinking and adventure. I won't spoil this for anyone who hasn't read it but the ending is sad. Kim Kardashian levels of crying sad. The whole book is brilliant though and I love every last sentence. Another I need to revisit sooner rather than later. // Themes: Childhood trauma, outsiderness, youth suicide, grief. 

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath: One of my current reads and I still have 500-ish pages left. Plath writes vividly and uniquely and it is all kinds of intoxicating. In the best way. As this does get a bit heavy sometimes I do tend to put it aside when I want a hiatus from her world but it's easily one of the best diaries I have read and will probably ever read. // Themes: Youth, love, identity, depression, careers, the future, time. 

Quick disclaimer: If you or someone you know needs to reach out and you're based in New Zealand, head here for a list of resources. 

-Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

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