May is chugging along, which means school is winding down, spring is actually here, and Shavuot is just around the corner. But this cheerful, blossoming time of year also holds a more serious significance: It’s Mental Health Awareness Month.
As a literary fiction writer who focuses on mental health, this month is incredibly important to me: It’s a time in which we strive to broaden our understanding of mental illness and amplify the voices of those who struggle.
One excellent way to do this is through writing and reading books. And while messages of compassion and knowledge hopefully reach a wide and accepting audience all year, Mental Health Awareness Month helps to shine a spotlight on these stories.
Reading fiction is fun, of course. But it also has significant benefits to the reader and society — studies show it fosters empathy, which is essential to increasing our compassion for marginalized groups. For a topic like mental health — where so many misconceptions are widely believed — quality fiction can set the record straight and effectively reduce stigma.
Plus, when popular novels delve into mental health, they ignite large-scale conversations that are essential for the progress of our understanding. Many authors — Virginia Woolf, Ned Vizzini, and Joanne Greenberg, to name a few — had personal experience with the struggles they depicted. This provides readers authentic, respectfully-treated subject matter, but also ensures those living with mental illness are given an outlet to express themselves.
I have found that reading and writing fiction have helped me better understand my own mental health, and better appreciate the hardships faced by those around me. My first novel, Glass (Brick Mantel Books, 2015), tells of one man’s quest to provide unorthodox therapy to those who have been ignored by traditional medicine; my new novel, Laika (Brick Mantel Books, 2017), is about a teenage girl who develops schizophrenia while living on the streets of Southern California.
Below you’ll find 9 must-read books — for kids, teens, and grownups — that beautifully and accurately portray mental illness, doing the essential work of bringing awareness to this important subject.
Everyone by Christopher Silas Neal
In this picture book, Christopher Silas Neal portrays a young boy wrestling with his ever-changing feelings. It will help young readers label feelings and understand that it’s okay to feel a wide range of emotions.
The Princess and the Fog by Lloyd Jones
The young princess in this book is happy and energetic — until a fog descends, causing her to lose interest in her favorite things. Childhood depression may be relatively uncommon, but for kids dealing with prolonged feelings of sadness and despair, this book does a great job of breaking down that feeling of isolation and providing a relatable protagonist.
Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
Kevin Henkes’ books tend to nail early childhood subjects, and Wemberly Worried is no exception. Wemberly is a timid mouse who finds something to worry about wherever she goes. What I like about this book is Wemberly isn’t magically “cured” of anxiety at the end, rather, she finds comfort in a new friend going through the same thing.
For Young Adults
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
This novel stands out among others dealing with depression because it has a fantastic sense of humor. It follows a high school boy who, faced with pressures of school, friendships, and future, attempts suicide and faces a subsequent stay in a psychiatric hospital.
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
This book tells the story of two friends caught in the dark world of eating disorders. The disjointed narration is raw and haunting, and the characterization of protagonist Lia is beautifully done.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg
For a young adult novel, this is a complex and dense read, but Greenberg’s expertly crafted story will keep you going. Her portrayal of schizophrenia alternates between the perspective of 16-year-old Deborah —whose mind jumps between reality and fantasy — and her skilled doctor. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden reminds readers that the road to recovery is long and requires hard work; a message that still resonates more than 50 years after its publication.
She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb
Dolores Price encounters a number of traumas and tragedies throughout her life, which often send her to a dark place of despair. Her fluctuating depression and self-esteem issues are highly relatable and treated with sensitivity. At times heavy and heartbreaking — but ultimately inspirational — She’s Come Undone assures us we are not alone.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
For those of you who dreaded reading this in high school, it’s time to give Mrs. Dalloway another try. Woolf’s novel follows the cheery and proper Clarissa Dalloway over the course of one day as she prepares for a party. It explores her depression as a multi-faceted condition that is so much more than “feeling down” while also touching on PTSD in “shell-shocked” Septimus.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This 1980s Japanese classic has much to offer modern readers. It’s an emotionally exhausting read that portrays one man’s passage through love and loss, genuinely relating the reality of life after suicide. While death is a major focus of this novel, Murakami fervently affirms the beauty of life.
This post is part of the Here.Now. series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.