Rah Rah for RA!: Depictions of Mental Health

Occasionally we here at Library Ladies get an email asking for some Reader’s Advisory. Sometimes it’s a general ‘what should I read next?’, and sometimes it’s a specific genre or theme that the reader is asking for. We do our best to match the reader to some books that they may like based on the question they give us.

Dear Library Ladies,

Lately I have become more interested in learning about the experience of living with mental health issues, (diagnosed or otherwise) so I would love material that covers those topics. I am open to everything, fiction and non fiction, children through adult, provided the depiction is more or less realistic. Things that include the treatment experience would be especially interesting, though not mandatory. I am also open to more than just books, be it tv shows, podcasts, etc. Thanks!

“It’s a lot more nuanced than that”
Hi Nuanced (we get that reference)!
It’s always good to expand one’s knowledge when it comes to relevant topics in today’s culture, and given that there is still a large stigma surrounding mental health it’s great that you’re trying to educate yourself. Here are some reads that we personally think may be useful, though as we are not mental health experts this is by no means perfect or comprehensive.
Book: “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman
Publishing Info: HarperCollins, August 2015
Neal Shusterman tells us the story of Caden, who isn’t sure whether he is presently in school with his friends, or in the bowels of a submarine traveling to the depths of the Mariana Trench. As Caden tries to distinguish his actual reality from the hallucinations that he is experiencing, we get an honest, sometimes dark, but also hopeful story of a person who is struggling to pull himself from the brink. It’s important to note that Shusterman’s son had a hand in this, as he suffered from similar issues that Caden does. This gives the book an even deeper sense of realism, and while it doesn’t try to give too rosy of an end, it does show that mental illness isn’t insurmountable.
Book: “Girl, Interrupted” by Susanna Kaysen
Publishing Info: Random House (originally Turtle Bay Books), 1993
This memoir is a bit famous now, given that the critically acclaimed movie based on it starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie brought these actresses such attention. But Kaysen’s book still stands the test of time. Kaysen, after attempting suicide, was committed to a 1960s mental institution and diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. She is frank and honest about living with her diagnosis, and also provides some insightful critiques into the mental health system. Though a number of things have changed in the field since the 1960s, this book is still considered relevant when it comes to the stigma surrounding mental health in this country, and the unique stigma applied to girls and women.
Book: “Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things” by Jenny Lawson
Publishing Info: Flatiron Books, September 2015
Jenny Lawson is known to her fans as The Bloggess, and is also known for being incredibly witty and funny. In this book she writes about her experiences with anxiety and depression, and is STILL incredibly witty and funny. While some people might want to write about their own personal experiences with mental illness by giving a ‘how to get through it’ sort of story, Lawson kind of turns that on it’s head, and makes it more of a ‘so this is how you can do super well in spite of the hurdles you’re encountering’. Certainly not something that can apply to every situation necessarily, but her frankness and humor glitters in this book of admittedly upsetting topics.
Book: “Before She Ignites” by Jodi Meadows
Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, September 2017
If you’re looking for portrayals of mental illness in genre fare,check out “Before She Ignites.” Fantasy world, lots of dragons, political maneuvering, all typical stuff to books like this. What makes this one stand out is its portrayal of the main character, Mira, who has grown up being told she is perfect and special and the one would brought together all of these different island nations. However, Mira suffers from crippling anxiety attacks and uses compulsive counting techniques as a way to self-soothe. In a genre full of “chosen ones,” this book stands out by presenting a protagonist who goes through the same “hero journey” as others, but who also lives with mental illness and must manage this aspect of her life throughout it all. A nice example that our strong young women heroines don’t need to all look/act/feel the same to still be strong young women heroines.
TV Show: “Jessica Jones”
 As you asked for other recommendations beyond books, we’re throwing this Netflix Original into the mix. “Jessica Jones” falls in the ever-growing Marvel universe and could be easily dismissed as “just another super hero” show. But wait! You could even make the argument that the “super powers” aspect of this show fall to the wayside, and instead this is one of the most thoughtful and detailed portrayals of PTSD that I can remember watching in quite a while. As a subject, all too often PTSD shows up in one episode of a series and is limited to the most well-known aspects of the disorder (jumping at loud noises, for example). “Jessica Jones” addresses and re-addresses this topic throughout its entire run. Beyond that, it addresses PTSD driven by trauma other than warfare, which I think is also unique. The show can be a tough watch at times, but I can’t recommend it enough for those looking to get a better understanding of what survivors of assault go through, and how PTSD can present other than in the more expected ways.
Podcast/Website: “The Mental Illness Happy Hour with Paul Gilmartin”
This is kind of the one-stop-shop for mental illness podcasts and is extremely popular, so excuse us if it’s already known to you! This is a weekly podcast that is done in an interview style, bringing in comedians, artist, and even doctors, every once in a while, to discuss various aspects of mental illness. It also includes topics on trauma and addictions since many of these challenges tend to overlap. Paul Gilmartin is an excellent host and this site is well-organized and easy to use, so if you’re looking for information on specific topics, you’re sure to find it here.
What books/TVshows/podcasts do you recommend that discuss living with mental illness? Let us know in the comments!

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