Mental health is growing more critical in the twenty-first century. More people are coming to understand its value. We’re also learning how damaging our current health and criminal justice system can be for those suffering. The old systems aren't working, and we need more education to help those who need it.
I’m not an expert in mental health, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn about it. Like many others, I often dive into articles and books, teaching me how to take care of myself and how to be helpful to my loved ones.
All of the books I mention resonated with me in one way or another. Not all of these books are nonfiction. Very few books in my collection are. I’m primarily a fiction reader. But I can still learn something.
Here are the books that changed my views on mental health. All of these books made me feel like I learned something after reading. And they destroyed some misconceptions about mental illness I used to have.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker
My first R-rated film was Me, Myself, and Irene back in 2001. I went in thinking I'd find another Jim Carrey classic. Instead, I heard about schizophrenia for the first time. The movie was hilarious, but it had the disease all wrong.
Hidden Valley Road tells the story of the Galvin family. Don and Mimi Galvin were a Catholic couple living in Colorado with their twelve children. They had ten boys and two girls. Over time, six of the boys started showing early symptoms of the disease. While the six boys battled schizophrenia, the other six children wondered if they’d be next.
When scientists learned of the Galvins, they became critical in researching schizophrenia. Because of this family, science discovered new details about this illness that could change how we treat it. The Galvins helped find scientific breakthroughs in treatment. Now, we have new hope in understanding the disease.
Schizophrenia is a more complex disease than I could’ve ever imagined when I read the book. I took psychology classes in high school and college, and neither class came close to helping me understand how complex schizophrenia is.
Hidden Valley Road is a fascinating read for anyone looking to learn about schizophrenia and how it affects others.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
When I first discovered this book, I kept reading about how it’s a contemporary feminist piece. But when I read it, I couldn’t figure out the message. Instead, I saw it as a book highlighting mental illness.
The Bell Jar tells the story of a woman who’s going through a nervous breakdown. Plath highlights the struggles the woman goes through and her time in a mental hospital.
I went into the book thinking I wouldn’t understand it. However, it ended up being relatable. The protagonist’s breakdown is temporary. It gave a window to how people treated mental illness in the 1960s. I couldn't imagine going through shock therapy if I had a nervous breakdown today.
The book had one of the best descriptions of depression I'd ever read. It's a book for anyone in your life who could be struggling and need to know they're not alone.
Idiot by Laura Clery
Laura Clery and her family are some of the most famous people on the internet. She’s responsible for the “Me Trying to Flirt” videos, Pamela Pumpkin and the rest of Helen Horbath’s family. During the pandemic she started getting into TikTok and often posts dance pictures with her husband.
On Instagram, she often leads meditation sessions for people when she’s not posting funny pictures or videos. She also posts adorable pictures of her son. She and her husband together will also tell their addiction stories on Instagram to help any fans who are struggling.
Back in September of 2019, Clery wrote a book about her life and her struggles with drug addiction. She’s often said if she did nothing about her addiction, she’d be dead.
I know some people are rolling their eyes; I included a book about drug addiction. However, the more people see drug addiction as a disease and not a choice, the better we could treat it.
Clery's book highlights the struggles of overcoming addiction. She is a huge advocate of AA, and she explains in detail how she used it to help herself recover from addiction. A part of the program that makes people wary is the idea of swearing to a higher power. Clery talks about how she handled that part when she grew up not trusting religion in the first place.
Clery wants to emphasize that people can change. But the only way is for them to want to change. It's hard to confront your toxic habits, but when you do you will start seeing the rewards.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This book is another one that’s on my list of favorites. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about a boy named Charlie going through his first year of high school. Charlie hears about someone he can write letters to, talking about his first year as a freshman.
As he goes through high school, he learns to stop watching and letting things happen to him. He starts taking control of his life and living in the moment. By living how he was before, Charlie went through a mental break down where we learn about his trauma.
Even though the situations in the book seemed wild to me, Charlie was a relatable kid. The book took place in the 1990s, but some of the situations Charlie went through were relatable. It is a nostalgic rite of passage people of any generation can relate to.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The beauty of literature is you can interpret it in any way you want. While this is an autobiography, it’s important to highlight one section in the book. The part of the book that got it banned from many different schools after it got published.
As we know, Maya Angelou is a survivor of child sexual abuse. Because of it, she didn’t speak for a long time. Long after her family told her to get over it, she remained silent. It wasn’t until a family friend took an interest in her that she started speaking again.
It’s a small part of the book, yes, but it’s one that shows how trauma affects different people. While some turn to drugs, others turn to silence. How you approach someone can help or hinder their mental health.
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
No matter who you are, everyone needs maintenance on their mental health. The Thing About Jellyfish tells the story of a girl who stopped speaking after her friend drowns in a freak accident. She starts coming up with theories as to why her friend drowned and set out to research why.
She starts blaming jellyfish for her friend's death. It brought her comfort and an answer to something no one knew. It’s never clear if that’s what happened to her friend, but she was able to cope by learning about jellyfish.
The book shows ways a kid can process grief. Some people think about kids acting out when something happens. But fixating on something else is a sign of mourning too.
Echo by Francesca Lia Block
The last one tackles another subject that no one thinks about a lot when it comes to mental health: eating disorders. Francesca Lia Block is one of my favorite writers, and Echo is one of my favorite books of all time.
In the book, Echo is continually ignored by her father because of her mother’s beauty. Her father is a painter who often paints her mother as an angelic figure while she’s the elvish attachment. She implies it could’ve started the eating disorder.
But when her father gets diagnosed with cancer, she leaves college to help her mother. The people she meets in her life help her become a stronger person with the experiences they gave her.
I hesitated to put this one on the list. While Block cleverly shows us that eating disorders aren’t a teenage phase, she has a pattern with a lot of her books.
In most of her books, there is a girl who finds the love of her life. However, they don’t stay together. Usually, it’s because of the girl’s lack of confidence or something else. So she spends years working on herself until one day she sees him again when she’s stronger.
A lot of the same patterns happened with this book, too. However, I’m adding the story because she didn’t make it seem like Echo was improving herself to see the boy again. She did it for herself.
While not all of these books fixate on mental health itself, the events in each book highlight the importance of it. These books can help change our perceptions of mental health. The books can also give us signs to look for in ourselves.
Many people think that because a book doesn’t involve psychiatrists or highlights mental illness that it’s not a mental health piece. However, any book can highlight mental health if you know what you’re looking for.
If you didn’t see a book you felt belonged on this list, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean I’m overlooking the books. It could be that I haven’t read the book yet. So in case you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned Silver Linings Playbook, I haven’t read that book yet.