When I was a child, I systematically read through the entire primarily school library. Then the entire high school library. In all of the books I read, I never really learned about mental health.
I didn’t know what it was. I wasn’t told about the different forms, or about how debilitating they could be. I was self-harming before I even knew about the concept of it. I just did it because…it felt like I should. Then I started getting anxious. Having panic attacks. And I still had no idea that mental health existed. In fact, it took a while for me to admit what was happening to me precisely because I had no idea what it was.
It’s not difficult to see how much of a difference it would have made if, when I was reading through the library, I had read books on mental health.
It seems trite to say that books can change the world, but I truly believe that they can. In the past decade, I have been reading more and more books where mental health is called out explicitly – not just present in a passive, peripheral way. At the forefront, or at the very least directly acknowledged. Some of these books have informed and developed my understanding of mental health and, so, I want to put three in front of you today.
The first recommendation I would make would be almost anything by John Green. You almost certainly know John from his book The Fault in Our Stars, but you might not have read Paper Towns. You almost certainly haven’t read Turtles All the Way Down, if for no reason other than that it was just released today. It has been out for a matter of hours now and is already being hailed as a devastatingly accurate and articulate representation of what it means to have OCD. John is doing incredible work in making these stories accessible not just to people in general but specifically to young adults.
My next recommendation is a memoir by another name you probably know if you have even one toe dipped into the geek sphere: Felicia Day. Felicia’s book, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) is a funny, empowering and vulnerable recollection of what it means to grow up weird. It is incredibly honest, written like a friend is telling you a story in confidence. It perfectly articulates the painful nexus point of anxiety, depression and high expectations – one which I found cathartic in its familiarity.
Last but most certainly not least, I want to talk about Stephen Fry. For a very long time, my answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up” was Stephen Fry. When I was younger, he was the example of someone who had reacted to bullying in the same way I had. When he was targeted for being different, he too became louder, more brash, more overt in his differences. And he came through all of that to become incredibly successful. He has a whole host of books that involve mental health, but I would most recommend The Liar – fiction – and his memoirs, Moab is My Washpot and The Fry Chronicles. He isn’t perfect – but then, nobody is.
These three are all champions of mental health, so it is fitting to talk about their work and the difference they have made to me today – World Mental Health Day. But they are a tiny fraction of the representation you can increasingly find in both text and film.
What are your favourite representations of mental health in fiction and non-fiction?
If you are struggling with a mental health problem, please reach out to someone. You can find a lot more information about mental health here at Mind, a UK charity. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, there is a worldwide list of crisis lines here at Wikipedia.
If you’re looking for representations of anxiety in fantasy fiction, my debut novel, Mundane Magic, is about a young woman and her struggle with anxiety amidst a changing world.