Today is National Suicide Prevention Day. September is National Suicide Prevention Month. A lot of crazy things have been going on in our world, and rising rates of suicide should not be one of those things. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on how to talk about mental health — I’m not — but I think it’s an important conversation to have. As a society, we are slowly breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health, and we need to keep breaking down those walls by having conversations about anxiety, depression, self-harm, and so much more. One of the ways I educate myself on mental health is to read about it. In addition to honest conversations and intense self-reflection, reading various stories about mental health helps me understand what friends, family, and strangers on the street could be dealing with on a daily basis. I’ve got five recommendations about books that I feel tackle mental health from different perspectives. Let’s get started.
1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary novel — readers are actually reading letters between Charlie and an unknown friend as he recounts some of his experiences during his freshman year of high school. Charlie, a self-proclaimed wallflower, becomes friends with an older pair of siblings, Patrick and Sam. These seniors introduce Charlie to a life in color — he participates in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, experiments with drugs, has his first kiss, and so much more. Charlie is truly living for the first time, but a memory from his past keeps trying to break the surface. Chbosky’s novel may seem like an ordinary coming-of-age book, but it actually explores what it’s like for someone to suffer from PTSD, explore suppressed sexual desires, and be a victim of domestic abuse.
2. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
Girl, Interrupted is a memoir about Kaysen’s time spent in McLean Hospital’s psychiatric ward in the 1960s after she attempted to commit suicide by overdose. Readers learn not only about Kaysen’s personal struggles on the ward with her new diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, but they learn of some of the other patients issues ranging from depression to sociopathy and more. Though troubling at times, Kaysen’s story is important. It helps audience members understand the wide-reaching affects of mental illness, the vast array of symptoms that can manifest themselves in a person suffering from a mental illness, and how the improper treatment of such illnesses can affect someone’s present and future.
3. It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
One night, 15-year-old Craig is driven to call a suicide hotline after feeling like his world is caving in. Craig attends a prestigious, private New York high school, and when the self-inflicted pressure to be perfect becomes too much, Craig’s depression threatens to take over his life. He is admitted into a psychiatric hospital where he meets a wide variety of individuals admitted for their own reasons. Craig grows close to one other patient, Noelle, who helps him cope with his issues of anxiety and depression. Truthfully, I don’t remember loving this book when I read it a few years ago, but I do think it portrays the all too real affects of personal pressure and expectations placed on young people today. While not entirely autobiographical, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is based off of Vizzini’s personal experience with depression.
4. Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone
Sam may seem like the typical popular girl at school, but inside she’s hiding her deepest secret — her OCD. Sam keeps lots of secrets — mostly to maintain her status in her elite friend group — but her biggest secret ends up helping her find true friends and an overwhelming passion for words. Every Last Word touches not only upon mental health issues, but also toxic relationships and how damaging certain types of friendships can be to the psyche. I personally enjoyed Every Last Word because it put mental illness into perspective for me. Mental illness is not just one thing — it does not manifest itself the same way in every person it affects — therefore, it’s hard to define certain illnesses and find people the help they need. Despite not always being able to perfectly help someone suffering from a mental illness, it’s important to try to understand what they are going through, abstain from judgement, and help them in any way possible.
5. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Based off of Plath’s personal struggle with depression, The Bell Jar follows Esther Greenwood on her journey with mental illness. The story begins with Esther interning in New York in the 1950s, but as her anxiety and questions about life start to grow, Esther spirals into a deep depression. She goes to a therapist, who she distrusts, and is subjected to electroshock therapy, but only after Esther attempts to take her own life is she admitted into a mental hospital. Again, Esther is subjected to psychotherapy and electroshock therapy, but this time, the “bell jar” seems to lift, if only a little bit at a time. Plath’s only novel to date sheds a very important light on what a true struggle with depression, and lack of proper medical attention, can actually look like.
Mental health is a difficult topic to discuss, but as we get braver, more conversations occur about the topic that affects so many individuals on a daily basis. Do you have any books you feel portrayed mental health particularly well? Let me know in the comments below.
P.S. If you need help, please don’t hesitate to reach out to friends, family, or a counselor. I’m also more than happy to help and will always be there for anyone in need (but I am not a trained psychologist or doctor). Here is a list of additional resources for mental health support from The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.