Hello, everyone! This week is mental health awareness week run by the Mental Health Foundation. As this is an area I’m really passionate about both personally and as a psychology student, to do my bit I’ve decided to run a blog feature where I and guest bloggers talk about mental health related topics paired with books and/or blogging to help raise awareness. 🙂
So the first thing I want to talk about this week is some of the best fiction books I’ve read featuring mental health so far in my reading journey. There are a lot of novels about mental health out there, but only a few I’ve come across that do it well, without romanticising illness or having characters fall into certain stereotypes. It’s a difficult balance to master, but here’s five that do it well!
~ * ~
1. The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick.
What it’s about:
Pat Peoples knows that life doesn’t always go according to plan, but he’s determined to get back on track. After a stint in a psychiatric hospital, Pat is staying with his parents and trying to live according to his new philosophy: get fit, be nice and always look for the silver lining. Most importantly, Pat is determined to be reconciled with his wife Nikki.
Pat’s parents just want to protect him so he can get back on his feet, but when Pat befriends the mysterious Tiffany, the secrets they’ve been keeping from him threaten to come out…
Mental Disorder: Depression and Bipolar Disorder.
Why I liked it:
The Silver Linings Playbook is an ultimately uplifting and heartfelt novel about a character, Pat, who has hit rock bottom after having a mental health breakdown. What this book does well is to completely submerge you in the brain of someone suffering from an illness. Pat has warped and sometimes oversimplified views of the world, as well as unrealistic goals for life that he will never reach which will lead to disappointment. He also has a habit of becoming obsessive about his goals, which means he passes up great opportunities and new friendships. As the novel continues, we get to see Pat, through the help of counselling and a unique friendship with a girl named Tiffany, also suffering from depression, slowly expand his world to include new possibilities.Another thing this novel does well is to show the struggles that friends and family have with knowing how to react to someone suffering from a mental illness. Some try to coddle Pat, others who barely know him become over-friendly and kind, and some are afraid or get frustrated by his behaviour. I liked that this showed mental health is difficult not only for those suffering, but also the people surrounding them!
Another thing this novel does well is to show the struggles that friends and family have with knowing how to react to someone suffering from a mental illness. Some try to coddle Pat, others who barely know him become over-friendly and kind, and some are afraid or get frustrated by his behaviour. I liked that this showed mental health is difficult not only for those suffering, but also the people surrounding them!
2. Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne.
What it’s About:
All Evie wants is to be normal. She’s almost off her meds and at a new college where no one knows her as the girl-who-went-crazy. She’s even going to parties and making friends. There’s only one thing left to tick off her list…
But relationships are messy – especially relationships with teenage guys. They can make any girl feel like they’re going mad. And if Evie can’t even tell her new friends Amber and Lottie the truth about herself, how will she cope when she falls in love?
Mental Disorder: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
Why I liked it:
Am I Normal Yet is by far THE MOST realistic depiction of teen mental health I have ever read. It goes into detail about counselling techniques (CBT, exposure therapy, mental health diaries) and medication which are normally skirted over. It looks at the obsession those with mental health problems have with being normal, which is such a common unhelpful thought process. People often compare themselves to so-called ‘normal’ and ‘perfect’ people, an unrealistic/untrue idea they have created of how a person should be, in turn making the individual feel bad and inadequate.
The second thing this novel does well is discussing the fear ‘coming out’ with your mental health problems. Our character Evie is terrified that others will find out about her being sectioned and tries to hide it from everyone, including her new friends at her new school. This is something I could definitely relate to on a personal level, as it is always scary not knowing how a person will react and whether you will be accepted.
The third thing Am I Normal Yet does well is show that romance does not ‘fix’ mental health problems (a common cliché), and can, in fact, make them worse! This is also something I could really relate to. Dating can be hard and confusing enough as it is, without the addition of mental health problems, and I though Bourne explored this so well!
3.) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
What it’s About:
Holden Caulfield is a seventeen- year-old dropout who has just been kicked out of his fourth school. Navigating his way through the challenges of growing up, Holden dissects the ‘phony’ aspects of society, and the ‘phonies’ themselves: the headmaster whose affability depends on the wealth of the parents, his roommate who scores with girls using sickly-sweet affection.
Written with the clarity of a boy leaving childhood behind, The Catcher in the Rye explores the world with disarming frankness and a warm, affecting charisma which has made this novel a universally loved classic of twentieth-century literature.
Mental Disorder: Depression (but widely debated).
Why I liked it:
Ah, Holden Caulfield, such a unique character with a truly memorable narrative voice that has fascinated people for decades. There has been a lot of debate in the book world about whether Holden suffers from depression, or if his melancholy is simply due to grief, disillusionment and the growing pains or teenagerdom. Whether he does or not, I still think Salinger has created in Holden a brilliant example of the way of thinking that can lead to depression, which is why Catcher has made my list! Holden is so constantly downtrodden, moody and trapped by his own thought processes about the fear of growing up and the uselessness of the human race throughout this novel that you will find yourself feeling down and hopeless too. And that’s why this is one of my favourite mental health books, because it MAKES you feel Holden’s depression and despair, and it’s exhausting. Imagine feeling that way every day of the week and you’ll have a good understanding of how horrendous depression really is. For this reason, I think Catcher is such an important book because it promotes understanding and helps you walk in a depressed person’s shoes.
4. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.
What it’s About:
Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, so the whole world is a Simon Snow fan…But for Cath, being a fan is her life – and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fanfiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from the fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.
Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommatewith a charming, always-around boyfriend; a fiction-writing professor who thinks fanfiction is the end of the civilized world; a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words…and she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.
For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she ever want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?
Mental Disorder: Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Social Anxiety Disorder.
Why I liked it:
Fangirl was really quite a painful read for me. I have never read a book where I have related to a character as much as I did to Cath. Like me, she is a big ol’ ball of anxious which intensifies once she starts university. She takes a creative writing class (like I did for my first year), has to share a room with a girl who is the total opposite of her (which I also experienced), she has no interest in the partying of freshers (check) and has an irrational fear of the university dining hall, trying to avoid it by snacking on a stash of protein bars in her room (double triple check). While reading, I found myself getting annoyed with Cath for not having more backbone and taking chances, and then I suddenly realised that this reflected all the things I currently didn’t like about myself. Uncomfortable truths. Deep, huh?
Fangirl is on my list because it excels at depicting anxiety and how it can shrink your world to the size of a dorm room and computer screen due to avoidance coping behaviours that prevent you from being able to actively participant in life. Additionally, it shows how having a safety net, like a friend or family member who takes the lead for you, can actually be harmful as well as helpful. It also depicts well how others react to Cath’s mental health – they don’t understand it, they think it’s pretty weird. Yet it also shows the light at the end of the tunnel. As Cath progresses through the year she meets people that DO accept her for who she is, anxieties and all!
5. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.
What it’s About:
Theodore Finch wants to take his own life.
Violet Markey is devastated by her sister’s death.
They meet on the ledge of the school bell tower, and so their story begins. It’s only together they can be themselves.
But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink. How far will Violet go to save the boy she has come to love?
Mental Disorder: Depression and Bipolar disorder.
Why I liked it:
While All the Bright Places has split quite a few people’s opinions because it strays dangerously towards the stereotype of using mental health as a quirky personality trait, I never felt this way. While one of the main character’s, Theodore is given plenty of quirky traits, I never felt that they were made to be desirable or romantic and instead, every time something like this was mentioned, I felt it portrayed how delicate, fragile and vulnerable his character was.
I loved that All the Bright Places showed there is not simply one type of depression, and that mental health works differently for everyone. While Finch’s depression appears the be much more biological and thought driven, Violet’s is much more situational meaning while they are both struggling through life, their battles are individual and very different.
However, the main reason this novel makes my list is because it’s got a real fist to the gut impact that wrecks you emotionally, and really brings home the seriousness of mental health. This novel shows that even if you have an illness and are surrounded by people who want to help you, be it family, friends or therapists, that sometimes it isn’t enough. Not all battles can be won, and ultimately, someone cannot ‘save’ you from a mental illness through a friendship or a romance, it’s something that you have to do for yourself, and it’s a very difficult thing to do.