From depression to addiction, mental illness can take many forms. It’s the subject of many books, from fiction, autobiographies, and memoirs. Whether you’re looking to understand mental illness or read stories similar to your own, here are some of the best books about mental illness.
Books About Depression
Depression is a very common mental illness, so it’s not surprising that authors have written about it before. Like many books on this list, some are fiction, while others are memoirs.
1. Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett
Adam Haslett’s novel of family and mental illness is not an unfamiliar one; many families deal with depressed family members at some point. In the 1960s, however, the conversation about mental health was a little different. From a fiance’s decision to stay knowing what her to-be-husband faces, to children dealing with the looming presence of their father’s pain, Imagine Me Gone is a tale of family devotion in the face of mental illness.
2. Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li is no stranger to depression; she attempted to take her own life after two years of suicidal ideation. Dear Friend is a memoir of broken moments told through Li’s love of literature and books. It is a stark yet affirming tale of a woman finding the will to live through that which she loves so much.
3. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
It’s nearly impossible to talk about mental illness without talking about Plath’s iconic and only novel about the life of Esther Greenwood. Brilliant and talented, Esther has everything going for her, until she slowly begins to slip into a breakdown that Plath writes with brutal honesty and clarity. The Bell Jar is still a classic for American literature and mental illness discussion today.
Books About Substance Abuse
Addiction, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or something else, still faces a lot of stigma. It can be hard to talk about, but many have written about it to lessen the stigma. These novels and memoirs are for those struggling with addiction and recovery.
4. Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp
Caroline Knapp’s memoir of her love affair with alcohol continues to be relevant as she documents her first drink at 14, her partying years at an Ivy League college, and hiding bottles from her partner behind the fridge. To everyone else, she had it all together. In private, she was drowning.
Many use alcohol as liquid courage to face the stress of difficult life. Drinking: A Love Story shows just how far some go, and the courage it takes to change their life.
5. Guts: The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster, by Kristen Johnston
Author Kristen Johnston is a two-time Emmy-award winning actress known for her role in 3rd Rock from the Sun, so it’s no surprise that her memoir is so funny to read, even as it actively documents her cocaine addiction and recovery.
She puts it best: “It felt like I was speeding on the Autobahn toward hell, trapped inside a DeLorean with no brakes. And even if I could somehow stop, I’d still be screwed, because there’s no way I’d ever be able to figure out how to open those insane, cocaine-designed doors.”
6. Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: A Memoir, by Bill Clegg
Bill Clegg had it all: A thriving career as a literary agent, a loving partner, and a strong social circle. So why did he throw all of it away for a two-month-long crack-binge?
Clegg’s stunning and honest look at the drug that had him addicted is raw and hopeful all at the same time. With everything a person could want, it shows how far someone would go to throw that all away when addicted to not just drugs, but the second life behind it all.
Best Books About Mental Illness for Teens
Young adults face a myriad of challenges as they come into adulthood. Some struggle more than others, battling mental illness on top of everything else. These books can be a comfort, whether a teen has a friend struggling with mental illness, or they’re dealing with it themselves.
7. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, by Joanne Greenberg
This novel follows 16-year-old Deborah as she checks into a mental hospital for her schizophrenia in 1964. She spends the next three years attempting to find some kind of normalcy in her life alongside her psychiatrist.
A poignant semi-autobiography of fighting demons and coming out the other side, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is just as relevant as when it was originally published.
8. All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven
Teenagers Theodore Finch and Violet Markey both think about death very, very differently. Violet can’t wait to graduate and get away from her hometown after her sister’s recent death, and Theodore looks for a reason not to kill himself every day. When the two become friends, they are forced to reconsider how they look at life and death.
If you were a fan of The Fault in Our Stars, you’ll likely appreciate this story.
Mental Health Books for Children
Children face mental health issues just as often as adults do, but often don’t have the words or experiences to identify what they’re going through. These books teach children about mental health and strategies for thinking and talking about their own mental health.
9. Right Now: I Am Fine, by Dr. Daniela Owen
This book was written specifically for kids to help cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and all the stress that can bring, but Dr. Owen’s calming routine outlined here is universal.
Dr. Daniela Owen is an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She wrote this book to help children identify their emotions and calm themselves with a simple routine.
10. A Kids Book About Depression, by Kileah McIlvain
It’s easy to make things seem bright and colorful for kids, even for books about mental illness—there are plenty of other books that do. Bu McIlvain’s book illustrates that kids are just as capable and intelligent as adults.
This simple, straightforward book speaks to children with intelligence and compassion. It doesn’t shy away from depression or try to make it easier than it is. Still, it offers a glimpse into life with depression and the hope of working through it.
11. Cory Stories: A Kid’s Book About Living With ADHD, by Jeanne Kraus
Cory is like any other kid: He loves bowling, going to karate classes, and even helping his friends with their math homework. Sometimes, however, Cory does things that make other kids laugh at him, like falling out of his chair at school. Cory has ADHD, and this illustrated book goes through his adventures in treatment, therapy, and learning how to be ok with who he is.
Other Books About Mental Illness
Sometimes our experiences don’t fit in neat boxes, and mental health is no exception. These books pinpoint some of the messiness of the human experience, especially when paired with mental illness.
12. An Angel At My Table: The Complete Autobiography, by Janet Frame
Author and poet Janet Frame’s biography is haunting and hopeful all at once. She endured repeated treatments of shock therapy while hospitalized for a misdiagnosed case of schizophrenia, for which she was eventually released. During her hospitalization, she read and wrote as much as she could, eventually publishing her first book from the hospital.
Frame’s autobiography is for those who feel isolated and separate from others. Her journey of survival and self-discovery as a writer is a hopeful call for anyone feeling similarly estranged from life by their circumstances.
13. Defying The Verdict: My Bipolar Life, by Charita Cole Brown
Bipolar disorder is a psychiatric disorder that leaves the affected with extreme highs and incomparable lows. College senior Charita Cole Brown learned this when she suffered a breakdown that earned her a diagnosis of an extreme form of bipolar disorder. Her autobiography is her vow to be honest about the experience, and her life after it.
Defying the Verdict is a great book for those suffering from bipolar disorder and looking for ways to live beyond their diagnosis.
14. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Four college classmates move to New York seeking their fortune, and together find a brotherly force to be reckoned with. Each dealing with their own trauma, addiction, or pride, they face the decades held together by their devotion to each other. A Little Life is a powerful and moving novel for anyone facing their own demons, or trying to help a loved one.
15. Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, & the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill, by Robert Whitaker
Medical journalist Robert Whitaker made a startling discovery while studying a study from the World Health Organization: People with Schizophrenia fare much worse in countries like the United States than they do in relatively poorer countries.
Spurred by this knowledge, Whitaker dived deep into the American medical system, comparing years of medical history and current treatments against today’s “breakthroughs.” The result is a thorough history of our medical system and how we treat mental health.