Characters dealing with mental health

Lately I’ve read a string of books where the main character is dealing with some sort of mental illness. I didn’t do it on purpose; some of them I knew dealt with mental health issues, some not. Regardless, I’m kind of loving that there are so many books out there talking about it. What’s even better is that I haven’t read a single one that’s been dismissive or treated mental health like it’s the person’s fault; they’ve all been accepting and even done a great job of describing symptoms of anxiety or depression or other conditions. But the best part? A lot of them have been YA (young adult), which makes me super happy because it’s normalizing mental health and seeking treatment for an entire generation.

To that end, here are my picks for the books that do a wonderful job of presenting and dealing with mental health conditions, from everything to anxiety to PTSD to manic depression.

  • All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. I just finished this one after it was recommended to me by one of my students (!). One of the main characters (there are two narrators), Finch, suffers from manic depression but doesn’t know what it is because he hasn’t been diagnosed or sought treatment. It’s an interesting look at how often we dismiss mental health conditions as just “the way a person is”, and how those of us with conditions can internalize that and therefore refuse to seek help.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I’m teaching this one to my students right now, and every year, my skin tingles during the times we read aloud in class. I have such love for Charlie, the main character, because he is so honest and earnest and really struggling to figure himself out. My favorite line – and one that I used to use to describe my state of mind when the anxiety was really bad – is I’m both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.
  • Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. While I don’t love this one quite as much as the others, I do love it. Leonard plans to commit suicide, but before he does, he spends a day saying his goodbyes and planning to take one of his classmates with him. Leonard struggles to articulate what’s going on with him, and he writes letters to himself as a way to process it.
  • Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. This book, about a family where a father has passed Generalized Anxiety Disorder on to his son(because it IS genetic), is told from each family member’s point of view. It’s an interesting look at what happens when people know enough to know that mental illness is not part of someone’s personality and it’s not a choice, but they still treat the individual with the disorder as though they just have to work hard and then they’ll be cured. And that’s really the key: the characters in this book all – even the ones with GAD – believe that it’s about cure and not management, and that struggle is one that makes it harder for everyone. While I didn’t love it as a book, I did really appreciate the way the author captured what it’s like to deal with racing thoughts and panic, the feeling that there must be a cure, and the crushing realization that there isn’t one.
  • It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini. This has some of the best descriptions of what physically happens to you during anxiety that I have ever read. In particular, he does a wonderful job of describing ruminating, tightness in your chest, and all of the messed-up stomach stuff that happens like losing your appetite or going to the bathroom many, many times. This helped me to articulate my physical symptoms in a way that feels more real to people than just saying “I don’t feel very well” or “my anxiety is acting up”.
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This book is the best thing I have ever read. Honestly. And I read a lot. I love this book so much that I bought it twice: one digital, one hard copy, because I just couldn’t stand to not have it on my shelf. To be clear: this book broke my heart about every 40 pages and I cried a lot while reading it. It’s an incredibly in-depth look at how tragedy informs our lives in ways we understand and ways we don’t even know exist. And it’s a testament to the power of empathy and loyalty. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
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