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6 Books That Will Enhance Your Understanding of Mental Illness

Olivia Epley

Founder of Millennial Girl, Interrupted, a senior in a small Connecticut high school. I've been through many treatments and recoveries and am eager to share the lessons I've learned!

By now, if you’re a recurrent visitor, you’ve probably seen the short list of books I keep perched on the front page of this site. If you haven’t, every book there will be on this list, so no need to click out. I thought it might be worthwhile to expand upon it, as well as explain why I put each book (and the rest) on this one.

This list is composed of all kinds of perspectives, ranging from first hand accounts to clinical assessments, harrowing fiction to alternatively harrowing non-fiction. I’ve read each book and am happy to recommend each one to your reading list. Even if you “don’t read,” as a shocking amount of my Facebook friends have listed under their “books” section (fine, don’t list any, it’s just social media, but purposefully declaring that you aren’t well read? You do read road signs, right?), I hope one of these will catch your eye.

There’s very little I could add to the literature of recommendations of each of these works, so I’ll try to make each review accessible rather than profound.

A bookshelf of mine.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

Read physically or online or listen to.

A bit too dark to review in high school English class but certainly classic enough to do so, Sylvia Plath is best known for her earth-shatteringly raw, heartbreaking poetry, but her cornerstone work, The Bell Jar, is a fiction novel. It’s widely interpreted as autobiographical, and it follows Esther Greenwood as she navigates life at college and, as the book begins, a magazine internship in New York City. Esther is mentally ill, suffering from suffocating sadness and mourning a deceased father.

We follow her pseudo-reliable first-person descent into very deep illness, hospitalization, and a suicide attempt. The narration that Plath gives us, rich with details only someone who is Esther could understand, is the best account from inside the mind of a mentally ill young girl that I’ve ever read, and likely will ever read. If you’re interested in really diving into the inner workings of an ill brain, one that was born and raised just like you (I’m looking at you, my fellow early-20’s college girls) but which went astray somewhere down the line, one that is forced to reckon with the life it could have passing it by as it really lives the sick life that lingers underneath, this one’s for you.

Not to mention the fact that Plath’s eventual real suicide, and the similarities between her first suicide attempt and Esther’s, make this a particularly poignant peek into the shrouded world of suicide attempts.

(I’ll make these shorter from now on, I apologize; this one is my favorite, as I’m sure you can tell!)

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive Compulsive Behavior, by Jeffrey M. Schwartz

Read physically or online or listen to.

This is a book that comes up at least once in nearly every therapy session of mine. My therapist is absolutely wonderful and, on top of it all, is the best-read person I’ve ever met, so I often leave her office with a book or a recommendation. When I first met with her, she showed me this book and we now talk about it all the time, and for good reason.

For the obsessive, the compulsive, and the Obsessive-Compulsive among us, it’s an excellent review of the steps that can be taken to prevent oneself from giving into bodily temptation. Temptation isn’t really a good word for it, which Dr. Schwartz will be the first to tell you. His mantra is “it’s not me, it’s my OCD,” and my therapist has me repeat this often. His contention, a basic one, is that people with OCD can’t help their thoughts and obsessions, but they can program themselves to manage them and take control over their behavior. He proves this methodically, which pleases my rule-following brain.

The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk

Read physically or online or listen to.

I was given this book on the very day I first disclosed to any adult that I had been abused. I confessed my story point-blank to my then-psychiatrist and after he finished his teary response to what I’d said, he went to his bookshelf (the best of them always have robust bookshelves) and fetched me his own copy of this book.

Van der Kolk is a psychiatrist who has treated trauma patients for decades and in his book, he shares stories from his time practicing as well as fundamental contentions he’s unearthed about trauma and how physically ingrained into our bodies it is. Ultimately, he argues, trauma is an urgent health issue in many ways. He tells the tale in a hauntingly personal narrative that set the framework for my understanding the effect that the trauma I’ve endured has had on my body and mind.

Whether you’ve survived a “capital-T Trauma” or have subsisted on lowercase-t’s or just have old happenings stored in your body, you’ll likely find some worthwhile anecdotes in Van der Kolk’s telling.

Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too, by Jenni Schaefer

Read physically or online or listen to.

This book was required reading for the eating disorder program that I graduated from. In it, Schaefer frames an eating disorder as an abusive voice that co-exists with other voices inside one’s head. The head of my program at the time agreed with Schaefer, further challenging us to understand our minds as hosts of a peanut gallery of voices, and we can choose to listen to any we like.

That being said, Ed’s voice is notoriously powerful and abusive. Schaefer walks the reader through understanding exactly how Ed works, why he’s harmful, how he gets away with it, and how to stop him from getting away with it, anymore.

What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen, by Kate Fagan

Read physically or online or listen to.

I heard about Maddy’s story when I was very new to the mental illness treatment scene. I’d only just acquired a therapist and hadn’t even been introduced to a psychiatrist. The book is essentially a memoir of Madison Holleran, a former University of Pennsylvania track athlete who died by suicide in 2014.

The story was a real headliner at the time, for Holleran was beautiful, athletic, well liked, and smart enough to go to UPenn. She was the perfect example of the last person that mental illness stereotypes would have you believe could kill themselves. Yet, she leapt from atop a building in Philadelphia. Few could understand how such a tragedy was possible. This book makes it possible, and it is a sobering highlight of how suicide slashes across racial, ethnic, socio-economic, educational backgrounds. When I read about Holleran as I entered into freshman year with an aching brain, I was able to ground myself. I felt less ashamed knowing that anyone, regardless of popular suspicion, could go through what I was going through, and it wasn’t ridiculous or far-fetched. It was real.

The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing, a short story by David Foster Wallace

Read here.

David Foster Wallace is a classic American author who, like Plath, ended his life via suicide, and is both a marvelous wordsmith and problematic in his treatment and discussion of women. Setting those issues aside, he wrote a peculiar little story in his early, Amherst days about being on an antidepressant. The medication is Trillaphon, and the Brown-attending student narrator likens being on the pill to being on another planet. The narrator is on meds after a suicide attempt, and he titles his depression “The Bad Thing.”

A more vivid description of depression and its medicated state I’ve never before read, and Wallace’s jumpy, carry-on style is even more relatable to me and my inner voice than Plath’s is. Wallace is an essential read, and his work on mental illness is the most essential of it all. Google the title of the story (that I won’t bother to type out again) and devote a few minutes to it. You’ll emerge befuddled and concerned, but Infinitely wiser.

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