Books as a Mirror for Attitudes toward Mental Health

For Mental Health Awareness Month I wanted to make a list of books about mental health. I was done with a rough draft when I realised I didn’t like it: I hadn’t read that many YA about mental health and some pretty voracious readers are sure to post some fantastic lists.

What I do want to talk about is how YA portrays mental health issues, even when it isn’t necessarily focused on mental health.

mental health books

The first time I thought about this was when I read The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin. Now, despite some problems, I liked that book. It gave me the creeps in a delicious way. Even though it is a paranormal story, there is a lot of alluding to mental health issues. Apart from the fact that Mara obviously suffers from some pretty serious PTSD, she is also being worked up for a possible diagnosis of schizophrenia/schizophreniform disorder/delusional disorder.

And here is the thing that got me: Mara learns that she is being worked up for a thought disorder. And in addition toΒ being upset because she knows nobody believes her, she also has this painful monologue (which I can’t quote now because I don’t own the book) about how if she has this diagnosis she won’t get to finish high school, she won’t get to attend college, AND SHE WON’T HAVE A FUTURE.

After I read that, I just sat still for a while.Β 

Because it’s not true. And I’ll give Hodkin the benefit of the doubt that she knows this, but she also knows that the perception among the lay-population IS that your future is over when you have a mental disorder.

I am on my second psychiatric rotation at the moment. I have seen extremely high-functioning individuals with major depression, bipolar depression and even schizophrenia. We have this image in our heads of the destitute schizophrenics not because schizophrenia itself makes people destitute, but because UNTREATED it by definition negatively affects one’s functioning in society.

A talk about schizophrenia by a high-functioning individual with schizophrenia. Fantastically explained.

Another book with something to this effect was Splintered by A.G. Howard. I didn’t love this book so much on a whole, but also enjoyed the creepy factor. In this book, Alyssa’s mother is already in a mental institution for her schizophrenia, which affects every female in her family, and which Alyssa is dreading.

I haven’t read any non-paranormal books touching on schizophrenia. I’m looking forward to reading Cameron and the Girls by Edward Averett. But I really want for media of all types to start showing the hopeful side of mental health. Mental disorders are often chronic, yes. But with help, they need not be debilitating.

Mental Health issues are still pretty scary for a lot of people. Very few people desire an official diagnosis – sometimes I think we’d rather be perpetually miserable and pretend it is normal. No parent wants to think about their child suffering a mental illness. But, just as books can be (and to a large extent, HAVE been) instrumental in fostering understanding about LGBTQ and diversity-issues, they can foster understanding of Mental Health issues. Not just so that those unaffected will understand, but so that those who are affected won’t be afraid of seeking help.

Some posts related to this issues that I’ve written before:


  1. commonperspective says:

    Hmm.. well I haven’t read any kind of book that relates to mental health. I think other books like fiction and non-fiction are the source of making you because what I feel about myself that by reading books either fiction-non-fiction or historian’s book.. they have just made me more frustrated. Like one book that I read ‘1984’ by George Orwell.. that opened up the secret that how governments control and another book Animal Farm by the same author told me that how our own leaders who say that they are our guardians turns out to be dictators..
    In short books gives us the awareness and then when we see that we are being wronged and we can’t do anything.. we just feel helpless.. being ignorant is a blessing this way.. you don’t know whats going on and you remain happy with your life.. you take your harships as just your bad luck.. I think those people who read and learn are the saddest people.
    But I read regularly.. I love to live in books more than I want to be present in the physical world. πŸ™‚

  2. Ned says:

    Interesting I definitely have not read any books about mental health issues but the portrayal of illnesses like schizophrenia has been so warped in the media that people act nervous when the name is even mentioned. I think that the fear of the diagnosis itself can be severely self-limiting indeed as people get caught up in the illness identity and don’t realise that they can live wholly as a functioning person with treatment but a lot of how they cope and continue on in their lives is down to the acceptance of their illness and a willingness to live inspite of it

    1. Yes! Thanks for articulating that so well. I wish everyone would see that πŸ™‚

  3. I’ve read Mara and I agree with you. The book was written like the world ended when Mara started to have troubles. I was not impressed by that one bit. Mara’s problems should have been approached better, and definitely handled better as well. That’s why I didn’t like it that much at all. The sequel is much better.

    1. I enjoyed the sequel more too, and can’t wait for the third book!

  4. Reblogged this on Bookishly Speaking and commented:
    Reblogging because of the wonderful content!

    If you haven’t checked out The Barefoot Med Student’s blog, you really should!

  5. THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER was one of the first YA books I’d ever read, and also one of the first book I reviewed. That’s probably why I never really thought too deeply into Mara’s mental state and so disliked the book a little because of her oftentimes irrational behavior — I wasn’t very experienced with the genre, or with mental health, for that matter! But now that you’ve pointed it out, I’m seeing the book in a whole new light. I can’t really remember much about the book now, but based on what you said, I agree: Hodkin should have tackled Mara’s problems differently, though that may not have steered the story in the direction she wanted, since the book is supposed to be dark and maybe a little depressing.

    But I really want for media of all types to start showing the hopeful side of mental health.” — This got me thinking that there has been a rise of mentally unstable characters in YA books lately. Most of the time, they’re mothers. For example, THE HUNGER GAMES (Katniss’ mother) and THE BODY IN THE WOODS (Alexis’ mother), just to name a few. The only book I can think of right now that portrays mental health in a more hopeful light is THE SILVER-LININGS PLAYBOOK by Matthew Quick. I haven’t actually read the book, but I did watch the movie, and it was pretty good. There’s no, “No future for you because you’re mentally ill,” even though both main characters suffer from mental disorders. That’s generally the perception I got while watching it. You should give it a try! I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

    I do think mental health in books is a very important topic, because books are very much influential and may lead people to believe things that are not actually true. So thanks for sharing! This was definitely a different but enlightening post. πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks for your contribution! You make great points. I haven’t read Silver Linings Playbook either, but I have watched it as well, and I thought it was superb!

  6. harveylisam says:

    I haven’t read these books, but I agree so wholeheartedly that the media/literature should start portraying the hope that can come from mental illness. It’s not a death sentence. Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

    1. I hope they do! It’s such a testy subject though. The more I read, the more I worry about false information.

  7. Cait says:

    This is seriously interesting! I get nervous reading books about MI, especially when I know people who suffer from various things and so I have experience and stuff, just because if you read a book and it gets it WRONG, it’s so very hard to care about any other factors in the book. You know? 😐 I recently read Say What You Will and I was really disappointed with their portrayal of anxiety. There’s such a fine line between getting it right and and misleading readers.
    Great post! Seriously interesting diagram at the end there too.

    1. Thanks! Yep, I hear you. I actually just read a book (review tomorrow) that I found to inaccurate in many aspects and it really took away from my enjoyment of the book. Super bummed about that.

  8. nabil says:

    what are the references for the living condition of schizophrenic patients

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