• Abby Williams

My Reading Journey Through Mental Health Literature

Updated: Jul 12

My friends may joke that my English literature major is an integral part of my personality, but I truly do believe in the power of books to make readers feel uniquely seen and heard. Literature is a machine for change because it sparks topics of conversation that we normally avoid. It allows us to empathize with experiences that are not our own, as well as validating emotions that we thought no one else could understand. Books have been a solace for me for as long as I can remember, yet I am particularly grateful for their influence and encouragement on my journey with mental health.

When I was 16 years old, my older, college-aged brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, and suicidal thoughts. My younger brother was diagnosed with depression and suicidal ideation shortly afterwards. As our home lives spiraled into confusion, I frantically attempted to hold my family together by supporting my brothers and ignoring my own deteriorating mental health. I finally received confirmation that I had generalized and social anxiety disorder when I started going to therapy three years later. Literature has acted as an escape for me throughout my family’s journey with mental health as I would read outside on our lawn during warm days or cozied in armchairs after the rest of my family had gone to bed. My mental health experiences have been rocky: but my love for reading that kindled when I was a toddler has remained consistent all this time.

I study novels in university because I believe that fiction can be the most effective avenue to enter into someone else’s story. Shortly after my older brother’s diagnosis, I read Sylvia Plath’s own-voices novel The Bell Jar in order to better understand his experiences. I was initially confused because I felt that Esther, the protagonist, seemed to develop severe depression without warning. The Bell Jar, however, countered my false assumption that mental illness always has tangible warning signs or that others are always paying enough attention. When I reread The Bell Jar as a college junior, I found a wealth of validation for my own and my family’s experiences during the past four years. Esther encapsulates a distinct angst of coming of age both as a woman and as someone living with mental illness. Each yellowed page reflected a facet of my own thoughts and insecurities, whether my stress about life post-graduation or my uncertainty about my future with generalized anxiety.

As the world was shutting down in March 2020, I decided to reread John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down, which is an own-voices novel about Aza, a teenager living with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder revolving around bacteria. My anxiety differs from Green’s portrayal, but I still felt seen in a way that I never had before in a work of literature. Like Aza, I feared catching microbes from every stray surface (coronavirus, at the time). Like Aza, I felt my thoughts spiraling out of control. Through placing Aza in the spotlight, Green taught me that my anxiety was important, valid, and worth being discussed. Turtles All The Way Down became a resource for me to give to friends so that they could understand what it felt like to live inside my head.

Nonfiction, too, has helped me to understand more about my mental health. When I turned 17, my best friend gifted me her annotated copy of Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. Haig’s book was a brief, easy-read that simultaneously managed to validate the profound, impossible struggles of people living with mental illness and provide raw, authentic hope that things will get better. I finished the book with an increased understanding of what my best friend was going through, and quickly lent it to my mother so she could understand my brother’s experience. During a family vacation several months later, I decided to read Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawsen. By then, I was more cognizant of my own struggles with mental illness, and Lawsen’s work encouraged me to stay joyful and live despite my anxiety.

Many influential works of literature on my mental health journey, however, do not centralize mental health experiences. I picked up Catch-22 by Joseph Heller in 11th-grade after my preparation for the math portion of the SAT prompted my realization that I was struggling with anxiety. I felt overwhelmed and defeated that my lack of math abilities could decide the rest of my future, yet Heller’s novel encouraged me to take my fear less seriously. Life, according to Heller, was ridiculous, and merited more laughter than tears. When I moved to America over a year later after being accepted to an amazing university, I decided to delve into the Harry Potter universe for the first time. I was anxious about starting a university in a state that I had yet to set foot in, so I immersed myself in the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who were trying to figure out the world around them just as much as I was.

After I started university, I was in just as much need of finding solace in literature. When I was sent home from school in March 2020, my Black literature and Victorian literature professors continued to assign our class books that we would discuss in our Zoom meetings. For the next several weeks of school, I dove into the worlds of Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, Adam Bede by Georgia Eliot, Pym by Mat Johnson, and Dracula by Bram Stoker. When I felt anxious about the uncertainty of the pandemic, I was still able to appreciate the stunning beauty of literature and remember why I was so passionate about reading in the first place.

There are many works of mental health literature that I have not resonated with. Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why felt too dark and twisted, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye seemed too tainted by the narrator’s privilege to be relatable to me. All the same, I believe that literature promotes understanding and empathy that are crucial for mental health advocacy. We may not be able to resonate with the nuances of someone else’s unique mental health journey, but we may be able to connect with them through reading about protagonists who share their experiences. We can also recognize how books can act as mental health tools regardless of subject matter. How are your bookshelves destigmatizing mental illness? What books can you read that will help you understand the experiences of others?

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