5 Books which Explore Mental Health Issues

Books are a great way to explore mental health issues, often giving the reader a great insight into how sufferers really feel. Here we have 5 of the best books focusing on different issues, all from a first person perspective. They are all an emotional read, so please look after yourself if they cover information and issues which may be particularly personally relevant to you.

Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

The title of this memoir is a reference to the Vermeer painting, ‘Girl Interrupted at Her Music’ and concerns the author’s experiences as a young woman in an American psychiatric hospital in the 1960s after her diagnosis with Borderline personality Disorder.

Susanna is admitted to hospital after what is assumed to be an attempt at suicide (she denies this). Her stay is originally intended as a time to emotionally ‘regroup’ and it is proposed that she stay a couple of weeks. This becomes 18 months, however, and her memoir reflects on both the nature of her mental disorder and the treatment that she receives. It also details her relationships with some of the other patients she meets in the hospital.

This is a fascinating read about the way that mental illness was regarded, treated and stigmatised in 1960s America. It also inspired a film of the same name in 1999. It is a difficult read at times because of the nature of the subject matter, but it is also very interesting for therapists to read first-hand these kinds of experiences.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

This details the author’s struggle with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. It isn’t always an easy read but it does ultimately have a very positive message – because despite several years of ‘panic, despair and a daily battle’, Matt is now living a happy life and offers hope, empathy and understanding to those suffering with these kind of illnesses. His ‘reasons to stay alive’ are based on his own experiences and will resonate with many others who are struggling.

Matt Haig writes with honesty and often with humour and his overriding message is that ‘life is always worth it’. Matt Haig has followed this book up with other titles including Notes on a Nervous Planet, which considers how our modern world correlates with the rise of stress and anxiety and how we can stay ‘happy, human and whole in the twenty-first century’.

Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Buimia by Marya Hornbacher

Wasted is the biographical story of a woman’s long-standing battle with Anorexia Nervosa, and her eventual fight for recovery. This book gives a detailed picture of what it is like to live with an eating disorder and the constant challenge that sufferers face on a daily basis.

The author’s own story takes her through five lengthy hospital stays, endless therapy and the loss of family, friends and jobs. It is an extremely honest and moving account of her incredible struggle with this life-threatening illness and is at times, an extremely emotional read.

An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame

This autobiography concerns the author’s misdiagnosis with schizophrenia as a young woman, after which she spends several years in psychiatric institutions. She escapes undergoing a lobotomy after it is discovered that she has won a national literary prize for her writing. Janet actually goes on to become New Zealand’s most acclaimed writer – in her own words ‘My writing saved me’. The great thing about this book is that we see the author as a multi-layered and talented individual and not just as a person with a mental health diagnosis. It is an inspiration read and highly recommended.

There is also a 1990 film of the same name, which is based on the author’s three autobiographies: To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984) and The Envoy from Mirror City (1984). The film has attracted several awards and was received with critical acclaim.

Blue: Keeping the Peace and Falling to Pieces by John Sutherland

This is the true story of the author’s rise through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police force in the 1990s. Obviously a stressful profession, the author details his career which sadly ends with his major breakdown in 2013. Blue is his memoir of both the high points of his career and of extreme sadness, mental distress and slow recovery. It is a powerful, moving and honest portrayal of depression and despair – and of the real life issues behind the uniform. As such, it is as much about mental illness as it is about modern policing.