World Mental Health Day is October 10. Here are 20 books, fiction and nonfiction, with mental health as the main subject or playing a background role. Add your recommendations!
What many of you don’t know about me (and why would you) is that for my first semester of college, I was a psychology major. In high school, I discovered books about mental illness including classics like The Bell Jar and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but then, I ventured into nonfiction, picking up such works as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind and the deeply disturbing memoir My Lobotomy by Howard Dully. Add in the then-new-release I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb and I was hooked. From all that type of reading I decided I wanted to be a psychologist.
Of course, what does anyone know when they declare their major first semester? After taking Psychology 101 (with a phenomenal husband/wife teaching team) I quickly realized my interest was in reading about people and considering what makes them act the way they do. I wasn’t cut out for labs and scientific research, but give me a book with a complicated fictional character where mental health is involved or a memoir about the struggles and triumphs of the human mind and I’m sold.
So, in honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10, here are some well-known and some less-well-known books, both fiction and nonfiction, that hit on mental health topics of all types, from addiction to depression to psychological disorders to degenerative illnesses to injuries. In some books mental health is the core of the story, and in some books it may feature in a background character. And it goes without saying that many, many more books exist than can be represented here, so please leave a comment with a note about a book you’ve read on the topic that speaks to you. I’m always in need of a great book recommendation!
World Mental Health Day Reading Recommendations
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A look at the way women’s mental heath was treated in the late 19th century.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
An unsettling look inside a psychiatric hospital mid-century.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
A classic look at depression and the treatment of mental health in the 1950s.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
This book introduced me to Virginia Woolf and I love the concept of following multiple characters through 24 hours, switching subtly between them. One of those characters, Septimus Warren Smith, is a veteran of WWI and is struggling with what we’d now call PTSD.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes
I have a tendency to love everything Julian Barnes writes. This one seems like a risqué love story on the surface, but look deeper and you’ll find a woman struggling with addiction.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
A professor and linguistics expert deals with a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
What if electroshock therapy as treatment for depression could teleport you through time to other versions of your life? Find out from our 2019 Novel Conference central keynote speaker, Andrew Sean Greer.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
A thoughtful exploration of the many strongly-felt viewpoints about whether or not to try to “cure” people of autism wrapped in a legal mystery.
The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
A psychiatrist is called upon to get to the bottom of why a well-known painter suddenly attacks a painting at the National Gallery of Art.
I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb
Twin brothers experience a rift in their relationship when one is diagnosed with schizophrenia and the other isn’t.
Saturday by Ian McEwan
This is the book that introduced me to Ian McEwan and I loved its echoes of Mrs. Dalloway. The mental health piece of this one is hidden in the shadows and is revealed in true Ian McEwan form.
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
An injury gives a woman amnesia for period of time and allows her to reconsider some life choices.
Story of a Sociopath by Julia Navarro
The title of this one says it all. Don’t expect to feel good after reading this one but the way character motivations are written in this one are extremely well-done. Look to this title if you need help writing villains.
The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold
A woman takes care of her mother suffering from agoraphobia and dementia.
My Lobotomy by Howard Dully
A man tries to understand why his family would opt to give him a lobotomy at a very young age.
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
A memoir of living with what was then-called manic-depressive disorder.
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
A memoir of life inside a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
The life of a Nobel-Prize winning mathematician and how schizophrenia affected his work and personal life.
The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon
The subtitle says it all: At Atlas of Depression–it’s everything you need to know and written for a lay-person.
Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
A memoir of the author’s struggle with depression while trying to succeed at college and finding a career after.
If you want to read more about adding mental health issues to your characters and writing, check out these posts about Your Protagonist’s Mental Health and Mental Heath, Feminism, and the Future of YA Fiction.