20 Compelling Books About Mental Illness

Posted on July 22, 2016 by

Nearly one in five American adults will suffer from mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The pervasive experience of mental illness can be terrifying and sad — both for patients and their loved ones — and is one that many writers have sought to capture through stories. We’ve compiled a list of memoirs and novels that depict both the devastation and hope surrounding mental illness. Publishers’ descriptions are included.

 

Memoirs

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

In Furiously Happy, #1 New York Times bestselling author Jenny Lawson explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea.

But terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

As Jenny says:

“Some people might think that being ‘furiously happy’ is just an excuse to be stupid and irresponsible and invite a herd of kangaroos over to your house without telling your husband first because you suspect he would say no since he’s never particularly liked kangaroos. And that would be ridiculous because no one would invite a herd of kangaroos into their house. Two is the limit. I speak from personal experience. My husband says that none is the new limit. I say he should have been clearer about that before I rented all those kangaroos.

“Most of my favorite people are dangerously fucked-up but you’d never guess because we’ve learned to bare it so honestly that it becomes the new normal. Like John Hughes wrote in The Breakfast Club, ‘We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it.’ Except go back and cross out the word ‘hiding.’”

Furiously Happy is about “taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they’re the same moments we take into battle with us when our brains declare war on our very existence. It’s the difference between “surviving life” and “living life.” It’s the difference between “taking a shower” and “teaching your monkey butler how to shampoo your hair.” It’s the difference between being “sane” and being “furiously happy.”

Lawson is beloved around the world for her inimitable humor and honesty, and in Furiously Happy, she is at her snort-inducing funniest. This is a book about embracing everything that makes us who we are — the beautiful and the flawed — and then using it to find joy in fantastic and outrageous ways. Because as Jenny’s mom says, “Maybe ‘crazy’ isn’t so bad after all.” Sometimes crazy is just right.

 

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Every time Allie Brosh posts something new on her hugely popular blog — Hyperbole and a Half — the internet rejoices.

Touching, absurd, and darkly comic, Allie Brosh’s highly anticipated book Hyperbole and a Half showcases her unique voice, leaping wit, and her ability to capture complex emotions with deceptively simple illustrations.

Brosh’s debut marks the launch of a major new American humorist who will surely make even the biggest scrooge or snob laugh. We dare you not to.

 

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

When 24-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened?

In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen. “A fascinating look at the disease that… could have cost this vibrant, vital young woman her life” (People), Brain on Fire is an unforgettable exploration of memory and identity, faith and love, and a profoundly compelling tale of survival and perseverance that is destined to become a classic.

 

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Resilience by Jessie Close with Pete Earley and Glenn Close

Resilience by Jessie Close

At a young age, Jessie Close struggled with symptoms that would transform into severe bipolar disorder in her early 20s, but she was not properly diagnosed until the age of 50. Jessie and her three siblings, including actress Glenn Close, spent many years in the Moral Re-Armament cult. Jessie passed her childhood in New York, Switzerland, Connecticut, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and finally Los Angeles, where her life quickly became unmanageable. She was just 15-years-old.

Jessie’s emerging mental illness led her into a life of addictions, five failed marriages, and to the brink of suicide. She fought to raise her children despite her ever worsening mental conditions and under the strain of damaged romantic relationships. Her sister Glenn and certain members of their family tried to be supportive throughout the ups and downs, and Glenn’s vignettes in Resilience provide an alternate perspective on Jessie’s life as it began to spiral out of control. Jessie was devastated to discover that mental illness was passed on to her son Calen, but getting him help at long last helped Jessie to heal as well. Eleven years later, Jessie is a productive member of society and a supportive daughter, mother, sister, and grandmother.

In Resilience, Jessie dives into the dark and dangerous shadows of mental illness without shying away from its horror and turmoil. With New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Pete Earley, she tells of finally discovering the treatment she needs and, with the encouragement of her sister and others, the emotional fortitude to bring herself back from the edge.

 

The Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut

The Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut

The Eden Express describes from the inside Mark Vonnegut’s experience in the late 60s and early 70s — a recent college grad in love, living communally on a farm with a famous and doting father, cherished dog, and prized jalopy — and then the nervous breakdowns in all their slow-motion intimacy, the taste of mortality and opportunity for humor they provided, and the grim despair they afforded as well. That he emerged to write this funny and true book and then moved on to find the meaningful life that for a while had seemed beyond reach is what ultimately happens in The Eden Express. But the real story here is that throughout his harrowing experience, his sense of humor let him see the humanity of what he was going through, and his gift of language let him describe it in such a moving way that others could begin to imagine both its utter ordinariness, as well as the madness we all share.

 

The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks

The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R Saks

Elyn R. Saks is an esteemed professor, lawyer, and psychiatrist and is the Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California Law School, yet she has suffered from schizophrenia for most of her life, and still has ongoing major episodes of the illness. The Center Cannot Hold is the eloquent, moving story of Elyn’s life, from the first time that she heard voices speaking to her as a young teenager, to attempted suicides in college, through learning to live on her own as an adult in an often terrifying world. Saks discusses frankly the paranoia, the inability to tell imaginary fears from real ones, the voices in her head telling her to kill herself (and to harm others), as well the incredibly difficult obstacles she overcame to become a highly respected professional. This beautifully written memoir is destined to become a classic in its genre.

 

Wasted by Marya Hornbacher

Wasted by Marya Hornbacher

Why would a talented young woman enter into a torrid affair with hunger, drugs, sex, and death? Through five lengthy hospital stays, endless therapy, and the loss of family, friends, jobs, and all sense of what it means to be “normal,” Marya Hornbacher lovingly embraced her anorexia and bulimia — until a particularly horrifying bout with the disease in college put the romance of wasting away to rest forever. A vivid, honest, and emotionally wrenching memoir, Wasted is the story of one woman’s travels to reality’s darker side — and her decision to find her way back on her own terms.

 

Out Came the Sun by Mariel Hemingway

Out Came the Sun by Mariel Hemingway and Ben Greenman

She opens her eyes. The room is dark. She hears yelling, smashed plates, and wishes it was all a terrible dream. But it isn’t. This is what it was like growing up as a Hemingway. In this deeply moving, searingly honest new memoir, actress and mental health icon Mariel Hemingway shares in candid detail the story of her troubled childhood in a famous family haunted by depression, alcoholism, illness, and suicide. Born just a few months after her grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, shot himself, it was Mariel’s mission as a girl to escape the desperate cycles of severe mental health issues that had plagued generations of her family. Surrounded by a family tortured by alcoholism (both parents), depression (her sister Margaux), suicide (her grandfather and four other members of her family), schizophrenia (her sister Muffet), and cancer (mother), it was all the young Mariel could do to keep her head.

In a compassionate voice she reveals her painful struggle to stay sane as the youngest child in her family, and how she coped with the chaos by becoming OCD and obsessive about her food, schedule, and organization. The twisted legacy of her family has never quite let go of Mariel, but now in this memoir she opens up about her claustrophobic marriage, her acting career, and turning to spiritual healers and charlatans for solace. Ultimately, Mariel has written a story of triumph about learning to overcome her family’s demons and developing love and deep compassion for them. At last, in this memoir she can finally tell the true story of the tragedies and troubles of the Hemingway family, and she delivers a book that beckons comparisons with Mary Karr and Jeanette Walls.

 

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years in the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele — Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles — as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late 60s. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness, and recovery.

 

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing — a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

 

Novels

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

 

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good — no matter how small — stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself — a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

This is an intense, gripping novel perfect for fans of Gayle Forman, Jay Asher, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, and Jenny Downham from a talented new voice in YA, Jennifer Niven.

 

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend? A bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or is she the victim of circumstances?

 

Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler

Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler

Thirty-eight-year-old Jeremy Pauling has never left home. He lives on the top floor of a Baltimore row house where he creates collages of little people snipped from wrapping paper. His elderly mother putters in the rooms below, until her death. And it is then that Jeremy is forced to take in Mary Tell and her child as boarders. Mary is unaware of how much courage it takes Jeremy to look her in the eye. For Jeremy, like one of his paper creations, is fragile and easily torn — especially when he’s falling in love….

 

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

Helen Walsh doesn’t believe in fear — it’s just something men invented to get all the money — and yet she’s sinking. Her private investigator business has dried up, her flat has been repossessed, and now some old demons are resurfacing. Chief among them is her charming but dodgy ex-boyfriend Jay Parker, who offers Helen a lucrative missing-persons case. Wayne Diffney from boyband Laddz vanished from his house in Mercy Close — and the Laddz have a sellout comeback gig in five days.

Helen has a new boyfriend, but Jay’s reappearance proves unsettling. Playing by her own rules, Helen is drawn into a dark and glamorous world, where her own worst enemy is her own head and where increasingly the only person she feels connected to is Wayne, a man she has never even met.

 

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

Tom Wingo has lost his job — and is on the verge of losing his marriage — when he learns that his twin sister, Savannah, has attempted suicide again. At the behest of Savannah’s psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein, Tom reluctantly leaves his home in South Carolina to travel to New York City and aid in his sister’s therapy.

As Tom’s relationship with Susan deepens, he reveals to her the turbulent history of the Wingo family, and exposes the truth behind the fateful day that changed their lives forever.

Drawing richly from the author’s own troubled upbringing, The Prince of Tides is a sweeping, powerful novel of unlocking the past to overcome the darkest of personal demons — it’s Pat Conroy at his very best.

 

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle

Set in contemporary Northern California, The Harder They Come explores the volatile connections between three damaged people — an aging ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran, his psychologically unstable son, and the son’s paranoid, much older lover — as they careen towards an explosive confrontation.

On a vacation cruise to Central America with his wife, 70-year-old Sten Stensen unflinchingly kills a gun-wielding robber menacing a busload of senior tourists. The reluctant hero is relieved to return home to Fort Bragg, California, after the ordeal — only to find that his delusional son, Adam, has spiraled out of control.

Adam has become involved with Sara Hovarty Jennings, a hardened member of the Sovereign Citizens’ Movement, right-wing anarchists who refuse to acknowledge the laws and regulations of the state, considering them to be false and non-applicable. Adam’s senior by some 15 years, Sara becomes his protector and inamorata. As Adam’s mental state fractures, he becomes increasingly schizophrenic — a breakdown that leads him to shoot two people in separate instances. On the run, he takes to the woods, spurring the biggest manhunt in California history.

As he explores a father’s legacy of violence and his powerlessness in relating to his equally violent son, T.C. Boyle offers unparalleled psychological insights into the American psyche. Inspired by a true story, The Harder They Come is a devastating and indelible novel from a modern master.

 

Fearless by Rafael Yglesias

Fearless by Rafael Yglesias

Max Klein suffers from many anxieties — including a terrible fear of flying — but after surviving a plane crash his worries vanish and he suddenly believes himself invincible. Back home, a psychiatrist puts him in touch with Carla, a victim of the same crash who lost her infant son and suffers from a morbid, debilitating depression. Now Max and Carla begin a relationship that is sometimes intimate, sometimes painful, and perhaps the only path to recovery for both.

Fearless is a brilliant portrait of trauma and its aftermath — the shock of loss and the sometimes unexpected ways that people learn to cope with disaster.

 

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

A classic work of American literature that has not stopped changing minds and lives since it burst onto the literary scene, The Things They Carried is a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of 43.

Taught everywhere — from high school classrooms to graduate seminars in creative writing — it has become required reading for any American and continues to challenge readers in their perceptions of fact and fiction, war and peace, courage and fear, and longing.

 

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

An anxiety disorder disrupts 14-year-old Audrey’s daily life. She has been making slow but steady progress with Dr. Sarah, but when Audrey meets Linus, her brother’s gaming teammate, she is energized. She connects with him. Audrey can talk through her fears with Linus in a way she’s never been able to do with anyone before. As their friendship deepens and her recovery gains momentum, a sweet romantic connection develops, one that helps not just Audrey, but also her entire family.

 

Help is available at the National Alliance on Mental Illness website or at 1-800-950-6264.

What books would you add to the list? Tell us in the comments!

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