On Sunday, in honor of May being National Mental Health Month, I posted my ten favorite fiction books about mental illness. Here’s a list of my favorite non-fiction books on mental illness. It’s a mix of memoirs and psychology books, but I kept the list to books that I think would be accessible and interesting to non-psychology majors.
Please note that all these books could be difficult reads for some people. I chose them because they’re real and raw, and don’t gloss over the struggles. If you want to learn more about any of these issues from a close up perspective, these are great books.
- Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle With Anorexia, by Harriet Brown It’s a mother’s memoir of her daughter’s struggle with anorexia. It shows the toxic thinking that a person can go through when in the grip of a mental illness, despite a supportive and loving family. It also shows that mental illness becomes a family issue, leaving no one untouched.
- Why People Die By Suicide, by Thomas Joiner When I started working in mobile crisis, this book was required reading. Mr. Joiner became interested in the topic after his father committed suicide, and he made it his goal to find out why people do it.
- Get Me Out of Here: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder, by Rachael Reiland Rachael was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, considered by many people to be the “worst” disorder. I know a lot of therapists who don’t like working with people with this issue because they’re incredibly exhausting. But if they’re exhausting to a therapist, imagine living like that… As with many folks diagnosed with this disorder, she struggled with explosive anger, substance abuse, and anorexia. Rachael is real about how it feels to live that way, and how, with a supportive therapist, she recovered.
- Loud In the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl, by Stacy Pershall Stacy grew up as a “strange girl,” someone who never fit into her small town. She struggled with all kinds of self-destructive behaviors. She was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder, and eventually began a long road to recovery. Today, Stacy embraces her life as a strange girl and is an advocate for mental health.
- Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen This book isn’t all that much like the movie. It’s a look into the dark past of mental health treatment. In 1967, after a single session with a psychiatrist, Susanna was placed in a mental hospital for the next two years. These days, people are only hospitalized if they’re a danger to themselves or others. It’s rare for anyone to be inpatient for years. Still, this is an important past we shouldn’t forget.
- When Rabbit Howls, by Truddi Chase Truddi was the victim of horrific abuse from two-years old on. To deal with it, her mind created “The Troops,” alternate personalities who protected her from the reality of what was happening. She didn’t find out about them until adulthood. I was deeply fascinated by dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder) when I was a kid, reading all the books I could get my hands on. This, and Sybil, by Flora Rheta Schreiber, are the two best memoirs on the topic that I’ve found.
- Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER, by Julie Holland This book was written by a doctor working weekends at a psychiatric ER. Folks coming to the ER were in acute distress, and it gives a good picture of what it’s like working with people in psychiatric crisis. Most people who reviewed the book poorly did so because they didn’t like her personal decisions or her lack of empathy (which she talks about). I thought that this added to the book, because lack of empathy for the mentally ill is a huge problem with the professionals who are there to help them, in my opinion.
- A Piece of Cake, by Cupcake Brown Cupcake was a child when her mother died and she ended up with an abusive foster parent. After being sexually assaulted, she began running away and using drugs and alcohol to escape. Growing up, she didn’t know how to live differently, and stayed on her self-destructive spiral. It would be easy to dismiss someone like her as a loser, a drain on society. But Cupcake was a survivor, and eventually got sober. Now, she’s a lawyer and a writer. This is a fantastic, wrenching memoir, the best book I’ve read so far this year. It’s a great reminder to judge no one because you don’t know what they’ve been through.
- Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, by Temple Grandin Temple writes about her experiences with autism and thinking differently, and mixes it with information about the brain. It was a fascinating look inside her mind, one I wish I’d read when I was still doing therapy. I thought it was an easy read, though the two people in my book club thought it was dry. Be warned.
- The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing, by Bruce Perry This is one of my all time favorite books. Bruce Perry is a child psychiatrist who works with traumatized children. This book recounts stories of horrific situations kids have been through, and what he did to help them. It discusses how early childhood trauma actually affects brain development, and how we can help retrain the brain of these kids.
- Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, by Irvin D. Yalom Dr. Yalom literally wrote the book on group therapy, and is considered one of the most historically influential therapists. This book is a series of stories about him doing therapy. It gives a glimpse into therapy sessions, and he also talks about his human struggles with being a therapist. It’s not always easy, and I think that often, therapists put on a mask as if we’re perfect, when we’re all just human. If you read only one book on this list, I’d recommend this one.
Honorable mention: The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath I didn’t put this one on the fiction list, because it was inspired by true events in Sylvia Plath’s life. It’s the story of a young woman’s breakdown and hospitalization.