As it’s mental health awareness week, I thought this would be a good opportunity to share the books I think are great for showcasing mental health and the impact it can have on people. Reading is a cathartic escapism for me, so I especially love that these books are unapologetic in their raw and honest portrayal of mental health.
I hope you can read at least one of these fabulous books, and please let me know what you think if you do!
1. Still Alice
This novel is from the perspective of Alice, a forty-something year old woman, a professor at Harvard University and a mother of three children. Her and her life are completely ordinary until she starts forgetting things; she loses her keys, finds herself disorientated two minutes from her house and struggles to recall words that would usually come so easily to her. Quickly it becomes apparent that something is wrong and Alice is soon after diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Alice must learn, not only how to cope with the disease, but how to prevent it from consuming her entire life and fracturing relationships with those closest to her. But with her job in jeopardy and her marriage being repeatedly strained by her symptoms, it becomes clear that it will be an uphill struggle.
I think this book is a great example of how resilient people can be; Alice’s mental health was so affected by her diagnosis, but I love that Still Alice proves that it’s not the end. Genova flawlessly showcases the power of human endurance in Alice, and because of that, this novel is powerful.
The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia is a book written 259 years ago, so you might be thinking, how could a book that old be relevant to how we feel today? Well, firstly, Samuel Johnson wrote the book in just a week because he couldn’t afford his mother’s funeral costs, and needed to raise the money somehow. So not only did he write the book in such a short space of time, but he was very much fuelled by grief and loss as well.
To sum up the plot, Rasselas is a prince who lives in the Happy Valley. As he is nobility, he and his family are very wealthy, and as such, he gets everything he should desire. Despite this however, he is unhappy. Rasselas often finds himself alone and thinking about his existence in the Happy Valley. When we meet him he decides the best thing to do is to search out people who are happy, find the reason for their happiness, and use it to create his own. He and a prophet called Imlac escape the Happy Valley, along with his sister, Nekayah, and her maid, Pekuah and together, they explore Cairo and the people around them in order to find the solution to happiness.
All in all Rasselas taught me that the search for happiness can be complicated and frustrating and that there is no point in assuming what makes one person happy will work for you. But Rasselas also taught me that it can be the small things, the little things, that get me through a tough day, and that is fine because there is no one solution or magic formula for our happiness, we just have to learn what works for us, and do our best to overcome what’s in our way. This book means so much to me, and I think it is such an important piece of mental health literature – I really hope you get to read it.
The narrator of There Are Things I Know, is Pepper, an eight year old boy who struggles with words, but finds it easier to turn them into numbers in order to remember them. He is good at remembering numbers. He can remember the number his momma always wrote on his arm when they went out incase he got lost. One day, when a man called Uncle Dan takes Pepper from That Amazing Pizza Place and tells Pepper his momma has died, Pepper knows he must never forget the number written on his arm, because he knows that Uncle Dan is lying, and that he must find a way back to his momma.
As this book is told from a child’s perspective, it makes the narrative so interesting, and on top of that, Pepper is autistic, so his outlook on life, and his situation, becomes even more interesting. This book was such an excellent read, and I loved learning more about Pepper, and how he copes with being in such an extraordinary situation.
4. Cat’s Eye
Cat’s Eye is a novel which jumps around in time, but follows the story of Elaine, and her life so far as she moves back to her home town of Toronto. Speaking in the first person, Elaine describes her somewhat unconventional upbringing during World War 2, and the girls she made friends with as a child. What starts off as quite a usual description of a childhood soon turns into a painful story of bullying, manipulation and the cruelty of children. But as Elaine’s narrative flips to the present, she doesn’t seem to have many memories of the atrocities inflicted on her by those girls, so we are left wondering if she has purposefully blocked them out, or whether she was so scarred by them, that they have managed to hide themselves from her for so many years.
The retrospective narrative in this novel is so interesting and can show how what you feel in the moment, can be different to how you feel about the same situation later on in life.
The crueltly Elaine experienced as a child in Cat’s Eye is not only realistic, but has happened countless times in our own world. Atwood triumphs at exposing how truly horrible little girls can be and so the novel becomes a timeless reminder to think about our actions and most importantly, to not let our past haunt us.
Perfect is a novel set in 1972, when two seconds were added to time in order to counteract the irregularities in the Earth’s rate of rotation. Eleven year old boy, Byron Hemming and his friend James Lowe both know this, but Byron is haunted by it and can’t understand how time could change. Then one day, Byron witnesses a disastrous mistake made by his mother while on their way back from school. Unsure whether the extra seconds were to blame for this, Byron and James begin “Operation Perfect” to try and help Byron’s mother avoid her imminent fate. We are also introduced to Jim, a middle aged man in the present day. Struggling to maintain his job cleaning tables in a cafe while coping with the crushing reality of OCD, Joyce presents a unique character who is haunted by his past. While the two stories seem unrelated at first, as the plot develops we are made aware of why they are interlinked.
The novel is great for its ability to show mental health in such a raw way. There’s no rose-tinted glasses, and that makes this book even more important. Perfect raised thought-provoking questions about gender roles in the 1970s and the very apparent stigma attached to mental illness, even in the present day. Joyce delves deep into the reasons mental illness is a difficult subject to understand, while portraying Jim with dignity and raw courage, and for that, I love it.
This novel depicts the story of Matthew. His brother, Simon, died when Matthew was a boy and ever since that day, he has been fighting the demons which plague him and remind him of his loss. Unable to move on from Simon’s death, Matthew succumbs to his demons and as a result descends into schizophrenia. Having a poor relationship with his parents to begin with, the deterioration of his mental health only makes this worse and while throughout a lot of the novel it is unclear how much Matthew was responsible for the death of his brother, either way, the death consumes the rest of his life. Matthew is only nineteen but it is clear that he struggles to make sense of the world and even the most simple tasks can be an uphill struggle for him.
Filer’s stream of consciousness-esque style of writing really allows the reader to immerse themselves into Matthew’s mind and more importantly shines light on the struggles of having schizophrenia. With inventive chapter titles such as “is this question useful” and “clock watching”, letters and illustrations and “truths” presented by Matthew, Filer is triumphant in creating a perfect replication of a human being struggling with the obstacles life has thrown his way. Matthew is relatable, heart-warmingly honest and simply just doing his best. His most relatable line, for me, being: “Problems seem less if we have them with a cup of tea.” If nothing else, Filer’s novel helps educate the reader on understanding mental health and the dangers of stereotyping and making sweeping statements for all mental health issues. As Matthew poignantly states:
“This is what labels do. They stick. If people think you’re MAD, then everything you do, everything you think, will have MAD stamped across it.”
The Great Unexpected is a novel which centres on Joel Monroe, an old man whose wife died three years ago, and who since her death, has begrudged every waking moment he has to spend in Hilltop, a care home. When his roommate dies, it hits Joel hard, having already endured the death of his wife, he now has to go through the grief all over again. And just to make it all the more worse when his new roommate, ex soap-star Frank Adams, (stage name Frank de Selby), moves in, Joel could not think of a more obnoxious person to have to share a room with. It is then Joel decides there’s only one option: he must kill himself. After Joel tells Frank that this is his plan, the two men begin planning the most suitable and dignified way to carry out the act. But along the way, Joel discovers that despite Frank’s seemingly pretentious exterior, there is a more fragile man underneath it all, one who has been through hell, and one who may just convince Joel that there are still reasons to love life.
I think Mooney’s greatest triumph with this book was displaying the human condition in such a refreshing, raw, and humorous way. He proves that there is always something worth living for, even when it feels like there isn’t, and his beautiful portrayal of one man’s mental health struggle was honest, raw, and most of all important.