This Mental Health Awareness Month, our team sat down to think about some of our favorite books that depict mental health and mental illness in thoughtful and considered ways.
Living with mental illness can all too often be an isolating experience. Thankfully, books offer us a window into someone else’s mind and life, allowing the author to create direct connections into experiences that otherwise would go unseen or unspoken in ways that few other genres can.
We wanted to put together a list of books that explore mental health with care and not as a plot hook, turn of phrase, or way to differentiate characters. From interrogating the physical, emotional, and financial costs of finding treatment in our modern healthcare system to depicting the historically under-reported experiences of intergenerational trauma, postpartum depression, and more, these 10 books offer a more complete view into what it means to live with mental illness and advocate for our mental health.
Cost of Living
By Emily Maloney
Henry Holt and Co.
Emily Maloney’s Cost of Living is a revelation in literature about mental health, as it bravely tackles the question: What does it really cost to live in America? Maloney writes about trying to kill herself when she was nineteen, an act that would cost a great deal both personally and financially as she is sent down a dark spiral of misdiagnoses, years spent visiting doctors, and tens of thousands owed in medical debt. In these essays, she writes about her many different lives in and out of the medical profession, both in the hospital and pharmaceutical settings, which highlight the many different ways our society fails those in need and indebts them for seeking treatment. One of the standout sections of this incredible collection is the title essay, in which Maloney breaks down the list of medicines she has been prescribed throughout her life and the cost it has had on both her wallet and her body.
The Upstairs House
By Julia Fine
The 2021 Chicago Review of Books (CHIRBy) Award winning novel The Upstairs House is a fantastic depiction of postpartum depression with a supernatural twist. Ravaged and sore from giving birth to her first child, Megan is mostly raising her newborn alone while her husband travels for work in addition to trying to finish her dissertation on mid-century children’s literature. When a new upstairs neighbor—the ghost of quixotic children’s book writer Margaret Wise Brown—moves in, Megan finds herself caught in the wake of a supernatural power struggle. Fine writes the experience of treating postpartum depression and its resulting loneliness and mental and physical exhaustion with such care, while also creating a page-turning thriller that readers won’t be able to put down.
By Chantal V. Johnson
Little Brown and Company
To the outside observer, Vivian is a success story—a dedicated lawyer who advocates for mentally ill patients at a New York City psychiatric hospital. Privately, she contends with the memories and aftereffects of her bad childhood, which are compounded by the everyday stresses of being a Black Latinx woman in America. Chantal V. Johnson’s magnificent debut turns seemingly ordinary experiences such as riding the subway into a heart-pounding drama through the narrative perspective of a young woman seeking relief from her anxieties through self-medication. Post-Traumatic is a novel about survival that offers a psychologically astute view on the aftermath of trauma with important glimpses of humor and healing.
Crying in the Bathroom: A Memoir
By Erika L. Sánchez
Crying in the Bathroom won the 2022 Chicago Review of Books (CHIRBy) Award for Nonfiction, and for good reason. This memoir-in-essays is a hilarious confessional that presents a brutally honest reflection on Sánchez’s upbringing as a daughter of Mexican immigrants in Chicago in the ‘90s. In her essay “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Mom,” the author traces her history of depressive episodes and how she inherited some of her anxieties from the women that came before her, noting “my mother can always imagine the worst-case scenario because of all the terrible shit she’s been through as a woman and as an immigrant…It’s taken me most of my life to realize that I, too, am always looking over my shoulder to see who or what might ruin my life.”
Heavy: An American Memoir
By Kiese Laymon
Scribner Book Company
Already considered a modern masterpiece, Kiese Laymon’s Andrew Carnegie Medal winning memoir Heavy provides an intimate view of how personal and collective trauma can cast a long shadow on our lives. Laymon writes openly about his complicated relationship with his mother, his experiences of sexual violence, and his struggles with anorexia and gambling while also exploring the long history of strife in America, creating grand portrait of how few of us learn how to responsibly love in a society that reefuses to grapple with the weight of its inequities.
Imagine Me Gone
By Adam Haslett
Back Bay Books
Adam Haslett’s National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize shortlisted novel Imagine Me Gone tells the story of a family coming together in the face of two members battling chronic depression and anxiety. Told in alternating points of view by all five members of the family, this strikingly emotional book provides a look into not only the individual experience of depression but also its legacy in the lives of loved ones. Haslett is incredibly attuned to his characters, which ultimately elevates this family drama into a timeless story.
Go Back and Get It: A Memoir of Race, Inheritance, and Intergenerational Healing
By Dionne Ford
Bold Type Books
In this powerful memoir, an unexpected family photograph leads Dionne Ford to uncover the stories of her enslaved female ancestors and reclaim their power. What begins as an individual’s search into her family history quickly widens to explore how intergenerational trauma can manifest in a number of different ways. Tackling topics such as alcoholism, post-traumatic stress, and sexual abuse, Go Back and Get It ultimately focuses on how we can heal from our past individual and collective traumas. True healing, as Ford notes, requires not running from these pains, but to return to her familial history and unearth what she can about them to start to feel whole.
Speaking of Summer
By Kalisha Buckhanon
In our coverage of Kalisha Buckhanon’s novel Speaking of Summer, Rachel León praised it as a “dynamic and important story that will provoke needed conversations about the devastating effects of trauma and mental illness.” On a cold December evening, Autumn Spencer’s twin sister, Summer, walks to the roof of their shared Harlem brownstone and is never seen again. Faced with the authorities indifferent to a Black woman’s disappearance, Autumn must pursue the search for her sister on her own. This mystery is propelled by an important attention to the lived experiences of grief and feeling unsafe in one’s community, bringing attention to the often silent realities of loss.
Odes to Lithium
By Shira Erlichman
Alice James Books
Odes to Lithium is a captivating collection of poems and visual art that bring comfort and solidarity to anyone living with Bipolar Disorder. Shira Erlichman writes an inventive and compassionate love to her prescribed medication lithium and her self-acceptance, resilience, and the jagged path toward healing. Reading these poems often feels like entering into an intimate conversation with the author, creating an invitation to listen, connect, and topple the stigma around people living with mental illness.
Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories that Make Us
By Rachel Aviv
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In Strangers to Ourselves, award-winning New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv offers a groundbreaking exploration of mental illness and the mind, and illuminates the startling connections between diagnosis and identity. Drawing on deep, original reporting as well as unpublished journals and memoirs, she writes about people who have come up against the limits of psychiatric explanations for who they are. At the heart of these disparate stories is a simple question: how do the stories we tell about mental illness shape our lives and our identities?