On May 17, Chris Cornell, lead vocalist for the bands Soundgarden and Audioslave, died by suicide in Detroit. This was a shocking blow for fans. Cornell was one of the fathers of grunge in the 1990’s, and he had outlived so many of his contemporaries: Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Kristen Pfaff (Hole), Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), and Layne Staley (Alice in Chains) in the 90’s and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots) more recently. All struggled with drug abuse and some with mental illness, and despite Cornell’s public struggles with drugs, we thought he had triumphed. We thought he had survived. None of us knew that he was secretly suffering from depression.
Depression and other mental illnesses are so insidious because they lie. They make you think you are alone, when you’re not. They make you think nothing will ever get better, when it will. They warp your reality in ways both subtle and drastic. They can often lead to substance abuse. And mental illness is so stigmatized. People will tell you to snap out of it, that it’s all in your head. But in the words of Albus Dumbledore, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
One of the best things we can do to help is share our experiences. By normalizing mental illness, we can raise awareness and speak truth to the myths that are so prevalent about “crazy people.” I suffer from depression, anxiety, and a mild form of obsessive compulsive disorder. For me, these diagnoses were a relief. They put names to things I had always suspected, and made me feel like there was a way forward through treatment. Finding books, blogs, and friends with similar experiences has made me feel less alone and helped me find coping strategies. Others suffer in isolation, fearful to seek treatment because of the incredible stigma associated with it.
The following novels and memoirs feature people coping with mental illnesses. Just a warning, detailed descriptions of mental illnesses—especially self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide—can be triggering to those who suffer from them. Please proceed with caution. If you are thinking of harming yourself, please call 1-800-273-8255 immediately.
Furiously Happy: a funny book about horrible things by Jenny Lawson
“Funny” doesn’t exactly cover it. Jenny Lawson is hilarious. If you don’t laugh out loud—sometimes maniacally—while reading this book, I question whether you even have a sense of humor. But it’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and tales of staging 3am rodeos in her kitchen with her cats and a taxidermied raccoon. Lawson is also very candid about her many illnesses, including depression, anxiety, and autoimmune disorders. She has created a worldwide community via her blog, The Blogess, of fellow sufferers and those who have chosen to be “furiously happy” in spite of their challenges.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
This book is not so much about mental illness itself as it is about how society views mental illness. Narrated by Chief Broom, a patient on a psychiatric ward who pretends to be deaf and mute in order to retreat from the world, the action starts when Randle McMurphy, a criminal who has feigned insanity to escape a sentence on a work farm, arrives and immediately challenges the autocratic Nurse Ratched. Kesey worked in a mental hospital in the 1950s, from which he derived the inspiration for this novel. It is a searing indictment of a society that is threatened by nonconformists and responds by robbing them of their free will and branding them insane.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar chronicles a young woman’s descent into depression, a suicide attempt, and her subsequent stay in a mental hospital. The semi-autobiographical novel was published under a pseudonym just one month before Plath’s suicide in 1963, which can’t help but color the reader’s experience of the book. The protagonist, Esther, describes the feeling of being depressed as being trapped under a bell jar, able to see the world but unable to interact with it, “because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
No One Cares about Crazy People: the chaos and heartbreak of mental health in America by Ron Powers
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Powers does care about crazy people. This book is part social history, part personal narrative of Powers’ two sons, both of whom suffer from schizophrenia. Powers examined the history of mental health treatment (or rather, society’s attempts to sequester and hide crazy people) and the stigma associated with mental illness. He sacrifices his family’s privacy and bares some very painful emotional scars, all in the hopes of fostering greater understanding and empathy.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Caden Bosch lives in two worlds. In one, he attends high school, where he thinks someone is trying to kill him. He becomes more and more paranoid, until his parents must put him in a mental hospital. In the other world, he is at sea with pirates, traveling into the world’s deepest ocean trench. Author Shusterman wrote this YA novel based on his own son’s struggles with schizophrenia, and his son’s illustrations are dispersed throughout the book. Challenger Deep was also a National Book Award winner.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Cath is a bit anxious. About her first year in college, about rooming with someone other than her twin sister, about leaving behind her emotionally unstable father, about boys, about class, about braving the cafeteria… About everything. She’s also a popular writer of Simon Snow fan fiction (think Harry Potter), and her online fans are clamoring for more. Many of Cath’s struggles reminded me of my own as a new college student: Stocking up on granola bars in my dorm room because I was afraid to go to the cafeteria? Check. Procrastinating on a big assignment? Check. Cath is a relatable heroine for anxious nerds everywhere.
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously struggled with depression, personified here in this book as a large black dog named Mr. Chartwell, or sometimes Black Pat. Esther, a young librarian whose husband committed suicide two years ago, decides to rent out her spare room, and Mr. Chartwell is her strange new tenant. Churchill is eighty-nine years old, days away from retiring from Parliament for good. His relationship with Mr. Chartwell is decades long, while Esther’s is just beginning. At times, Mr. Chartwell uses his bulk to pin his victims down, a physical manifestation of the feeling of helplessness and lack of motivation that comes with depression. Other times, he whispers seductive lies in his victims’ ears, poisoning their thoughts. This tragicomedy illuminates depression while remaining darkly humorous.