Whether you want to relate to how someone else is feeling or find out more about the intracacies of mental health struggles, these ten novels are trailblazers on the subject of the human mind
Around one in four people experience a mental health problem each year in the UK, but as a nation we still haven’t got to grips with the subject. Together we devour blockbusters with crazy, unpredictable villains, or gleefully grab the popcorn when celebrities go off the rails—but when and if our own time comes we often find ourselves all alone. Whether you want some company through the darkest days or to better understand others, here are ten books that give the best depictions of mental health illness.
The only novel written by poet Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, who is completing an internship at a magazine in New York. It’s meant to be a glamourous, exciting experience but the young writer finds herself feeling disenchanted and flat. On her return home she spirals into depression, resulting in suicide attempts, electroconvulsive therapy and time in a mental institute.
The narrative is autobiographical, with the character mimicking Plath’s own suicide attempt on August 24, 1953. The newspaper cuttings shared in the book are almost exact replicas of what was published at the time. She went on to stay at the McLean Hospital for six months. The author battled depression until her death by suicide in 1963 at the age of 30.
Unflinching and unapologetic, Plath is able to beautifully describe something so many others feel, but are unable to share. As she explains, when depression strikes it wouldn’t matter if she was “sat on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok”, she would always be “sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Jane Eyre fans will be familiar with Edward Rochester’s “violently insane” first wife who is locked in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea offers readers the real story of what happened to Bertha Mason, demonstrating how mental illness took hold of her through no fault of her own.
Born Antoinette Cosway, the protagonist’s young life begins in tragedy, with her brother killed in her fire and her mother overcome with grief. After marrying Mr Rochester, her reputation is ruined by rumours about her past, causing her husband to be emotionally abusive and unfaithful, flaunting his affairs in front of her. Rhys writes that his decision to call her Bertha was just another tool of his oppression; the character is continuously pushed until her fragile emotional state shatters.
In Jane Eyre, the “madwoman in the attic” has no words to defend herself against her husband’s claims and is often described as an object, a “clothed hyena” or a “figure”. Rhys helps address the balance by humanising Antoinette’s experience, making it less likely anyone will be written off as “just crazy” again.
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Symptoms of Being Human’s protagonist Riley Cavanaugh is gender fluid, but feels unable to share their true self when they begin a new school. Instead, the youngster turns to an anonymous online blog to share the feelings they have been bottling up.
Jeff Garvin’s debut book has been praised for depicting Riley’s extreme anxiety with authenticity, while drawing attention to the emotional and violent mistreatment genderqueer people often experience every day. The story demonstrates the impact the abuse has on their mental health.
What’s more, readers hear about Riley’s panic attacks in great detail, and those suffering the same can take comfort in accompanying them as they learn techniques to keep anxiety at bay. The doctor emphasizes that anxiety is a “normal response to stress” but some people’s systems are just “more sensitive than others”. “For you, maybe all it takes is burning a piece of toast, and your alarm thinks the house is on fire,” she tells Riley.
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel explores De Clérambault's Syndrome, where the sufferer harbours a paranoid delusion that a stranger or public figure is in love with them, often interpreting meaningless gestures as signs that their fantasies are real. In Enduring Love, Joe Rose finds himself being stalked by Jed Parry after the two of them share a friendly exchange while tending to a hot air balloon accident.
Told primarily through Joe’s eyes, readers are left to guess what is fact and fiction as his mental health steadily begins to decline. His partner Clarissa Mellon can’t understand his obsession with Jed being dangerous, planting seeds of doubt about Joe’s ability to reliably narrate. Has he lost his grip on reality?
Interestingly, the book ends with a fictional scientific paper on the illness, which some critics have mistaken as real academic papers in the past. Two years after Enduring Love was published, McEwan joked that he got “four or five letters a week, usually from reading groups but sometimes from psychiatrists and scholars, asking if I wrote the appendix.”
The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
Jacqueline Wilson is known for tackling adult themes through a child’s narrative—and The Illustrated Mum is no different. Told from ten-year-old Dolphin’s point of view, the story is centred on heavily tattooed Marigold Westward, who suffers from bipolar disorder. To Dolphin, she is “the most magical mother in the world”, but her older sister Star is often deeply embarrassed.
When Star’s father Micky comes back into the picture, Dolphin is left alone with her impulsive and chaotic mother, whose sudden impulses become too much to handle on her own. Wilson perfectly captures what it’s like to be a child worrying about a parent’s state of mind and slowly figuring out there is something badly wrong.
The author got the idea for the book while in New York with her daughter Emma. The pair spotted a heavily tattooed woman go past with two “alternatively dressed” children “who clearly adored their mother”. Wilson got to work on the story the following year.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
In Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie Kelmeckis is returning to school having been recently discharged from a mental health care institution. He suffers from dissociating flashbacks after the death of his best friend and much earlier in his life, the death of his favourite aunt in a car crash.
Fearing he will be alone at school, Charlie’s world changes when he meets and befriends seniors Sam and Patrick who accept him into their circle. The novel goes on to uncover serious themes such as sexual abuse, suicide and domestic violence, always maintaining a respectful tone and never over exaggerating the characters at its core.
Chbosky began writing the novel aged 26, stating that he was at the time a “very troubled young man” who was “desperately trying to find answers that would make life make sense”. Since its publication in 1999, he has gone on to become a mental health advocate for young people, answering thousands of letters, emails and phone calls from fans who just want to reach out to Charlie.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Set entirely in one day, Mrs Dalloway follows high-society Clarissa Dalloway as she reflects on her life while preparing to host a party for the evening. At the same time, First World War veteran Septimus Smith is struggling with PTSD after witnessing the death of his friend. The two narratives are in complete contrast to one another as they intertwine through the book.
Virginia Woolf famously said the 1925 novel was an attempt at “a study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side.” The writer herself battled bipolar disorder from the age of 15, describing her brain as always “buzzing, humming, soaring, diving and then buried in the mud”. She died by suicide in 1941.
The duality of Septimus and Clarissa are believed to show Woolf’s own life experience, with the veteran representing her inner thoughts, while Clarissa embodies her outer self that she shared with the world.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant works a nine to five job Monday to Friday. She has no friends, no visitors to her flat and spends her weekends drinking two bottles of vodka. Her life is fine as far she is concerned—until a chance encounter with a work colleague and an elderly stranger gently unravels what her strict routine has been blocking out.
The book maps out the ups and downs of Eleanor’s mental health, from her exaggerated, over-optimistic hopes of romance, to a sudden downward spiral when her expectation of the world does not match up to reality. She has created a survival mode to keep her from feeling or thinking too much about her past, but new friendships help her start living again.
Author Gail Honeyman was inspired to write her debut novel after reading an article on loneliness among people in their twenties, realising there “were lots of ways people who could end up leading that sort of life through no fault of their own.”
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. So said Chuck Palahniuk in his 1996 novel, which later became a popular movie of the same name. The book follows an anonymous narrator as he struggles with insomnia, finding that attending support groups for people with serious illnesses helps him sleep.
He then meets a man called Tyler Durden at a nudist beach and the pair come up with Fight Club, a secret society where men can bare-knuckle fight. But the group soon begins to turn into a cult-like organisation, and the narrator realises too late that things have spiralled out of his control.
It’s hard to explain why Fight Club is a brilliant depiction of mental health and sanity without ruining the plot, but Palahniuk does well to encapsulate how the monotonous pressures of working life can slowly push a person to the edge. But while it might not be what the author meant with the Fight Club rules, the book’s secrets are definitely best discovered by reading it for yourself.
Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone
Every Last Word’s Samantha McAllister is described as being just like the other girls in her class—except that inside she is battling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) leaving her plagued with intrusive thoughts and worries she can’t control.
Tamara Ireland Stone is credited with her accurate portrayal of mental illness in the young adult book, encapsulating Samantha’s struggles to fit in with her friends while second-guessing her every move. OCD leaves her terrified of her own mind and desperate to hide her weekly psychiatrist visits from her peers.
Stone was inspired to write the story after a family friend was diagnosed with the condition at the age of 12. Named only as “C”, the author watched her take control of her disorder through the help of therapy. “Because of C, I knew it would be the kind of book I wanted to write,” Stone said. “Not a story about a sick girl, but a positive and ultimately uplifting look at a mind that works differently.”
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