13 Books That Have Improved My Mental Health
To paraphrase Tina Fey in Mean Girls, how many of you have ever felt personally victimized by your mental health struggles? I imagine a lot of virtual hands going up right now. And if you don’t feel strong enough to put up your hand just yet, that’s fine too. That’s what this list is here for.
I struggle with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and have suffered bouts of depression. Most of the time, it’s a daily struggle to not let my mind and my thoughts get the very best of me. I’m also aware of the giant universal lie that we let our mental illnesses feed us: we are completely alone, nobody else in the world has ever felt like we do, and—my personal favorite—everybody else has everything all figured out. But not one of these things is true. Your mental illness is lying to you, and the stigma surrounding mental health treatment is definitely lying to you, too. You’re never alone. And you’re certainly never alone when you have books.
Through many years of therapy and hard work, I’ve learned how to take better care of myself and my mind, and as an avid reader and writer, I’ve also learned of the transformative power of words and the experiences of others to help myself along on my own journey. In the Julia Michaels song “Anxiety,” Selena Gomez sings, “Always wanted to be one of those people in the room that says something and everyone puts their hand up. Like, if you’re sad, put your hand up. If you hate someone, put your hand up. If you’re scared, put your hand up.” This list of 13 books that have improved my mental health over the last few years is my attempt at getting people to put their hands up, feel less alone, and bring comfort through the power of books.
Note: Since this is a list of books that have helped me personally, it’s not as diverse as it could be. Mental health books have become much more inclusive over the years.
How to Come Alive Again: A Guide to Killing Your Monsters by Beth McColl
In this compassionate and comforting mental health guide, Beth McColl explains how she has been there—and sometimes still is there—but shares nonetheless what has worked for her and what has not. In How to Come Alive Again, you’ll get both a beginner’s guide to seeking mental health treatment as well as an expert’s opinion on the nonsense that never seems to go away. But no matter how bad the twists and turns can be, it’s important to remember one thing: you are not your mental illness.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
This is probably one of the best books about anxiety out there, and I know that because of how uncomfortable it made me. Reading First, We Make the Beast Beautiful is like a session with a really tough therapist who won’t let you run away from your problems any further. Sometimes we have to confront ourselves and our issues, even when it’s uncomfortable.
How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned from Things Going Wrong by Elizabeth Day
As a chronic overachiever and perfectionist, I’ve had to learn that it’s okay to fail. Actually, I had to learn that failure is both welcome and important. How to Fail, a memoir-turned-manifesto about how failure makes us stronger and more resilient, reminded me that not only is it unrealistic to expect to be perfect all the time, it’s also boring. “This is a book for anyone who has ever failed. Which means it’s a book for everyone. If I have learned one thing from this shockingly beautiful venture called life, it is this: failure has taught me lessons I would never otherwise have understood. I have evolved more as a result of things going wrong than when everything seemed to be going right. Out of crisis has come clarity, and sometimes even catharsis.”
Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson
If you’re not following Mara Wilson on Twitter, you’re doing Twitter wrong. The former child actress remembered best for roles in Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire is a wonderful writer and storyteller. Since Matilda—both book and movie—mean a lot to me, you best believe I preordered Wilson’s memoir Where Am I Now? two months in advance back in 2016. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed her recollections of being the only child on film sets filled with adults and her decision to leave Hollywood behind, her discussion of her mental health struggles, specifically OCD, really struck a chord with me. I’ve struggled with OCD my entire life, but only in the last few years have I been willing to acknowledge that I have it. I wasn’t anywhere near ready to discuss my own battle in 2016, but reading Wilson’s experiences stayed with me for when I was.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Right before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic that came in to ruin everyone’s year, I was not in the best of places with my mental health. I’d fallen back into the same old pattern that’s been my detriment in the past, adhering to a crazy work schedule that was way too much for me—but since I tend to grow tired of my anxiety slowing me down, I also tend to try to forget it exists, which is not the answer either. So around this time I reread Tell the Wolves I’m Home—a book that my friend Eleni passed on to me about five years ago. Not only is it required reading for anyone interested in the AIDS crisis, but also required reading for introverts and definitely introverts with anxiety. It’s 1987, and the only friend that 14-year-old June has in the world is her Uncle Finn, a renowned painter. Unable to fit in at school or with her older sister, Finn is the only person that understands June and makes her feel safe—not only her godparent, but her only confidant. But when Finn dies far too young from an illness June’s mother can’t bring herself to talk about, June is forced to face all of her hidden fears, anxieties, and feelings—with the help of a new friend who might just be her saving grace.
Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
When I was in elementary school, I lost a lot of people in my family within a short period of time. I was rather inexperienced with death and didn’t really know how to process it, especially since a lot of it was very sudden. As a result, I didn’t properly deal with the resulting anxiety and emotions until several years later, when a series of other circumstances had plunged me into what can only be described as my first depressive episode. It was at that time that I read Love Letters to the Dead, a YA novel that has frequently drawn comparisons to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. As an assignment for her English class, Laurel must write a letter to a dead person. She chooses Kurt Cobain because he was her sister May’s favorite, and he died young, just like May did. But Laurel just can’t bring herself to stop writing letters to dead people, and soon she has a notebook full of them, pouring her heart out to her favorite dead celebrities about high school, the pains of growing, and most importantly what happened to her that one time when May was supposed to be looking out for her. Only once she has written down the truth can Laurel begin to accept it, as well as what happened to her sister. As someone who also worships celebrities who lived and died light years before I was born, and as someone who collects words and phrases written by others in scrapbooks, I can truly say—Love Letters to the Dead punched me in the heart.
Ziggy, Stardust & Me by James Brandon
In 1973, when the Watergate hearings are in full swing, the Vietnam War is still raging, and homosexuality is still officially considered a mental illness, 16-year-old Jonathan Collins—a bullied and anxious teenager—feels completely alone in the world. To cope, he escapes into the safe haven of his imagination where his late mother and his hero, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, guide him through life. In his alternate reality, he can be anything: a brave superhero, Ziggy Stardust, or just a “normal” boy who doesn’t like other boys. When he completes his treatments, Jonathan will be normal—at least he hopes. But before that can happen, Web waltzes into his life. Reading Ziggy, Stardust & Me felt like looking into a mirror and seeing the bullied, anxious teenager I once was, who dwelled intensely in his own imagination and blasted Madonna through his headphones walking home from school to drown out the voices of people who didn’t understand him. This was the book I would have needed when I was younger, and I’m so glad it exists now. I hope it reaches the misfits who need it most.
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish
This is what I love most about celebrity memoirs: you buy the book obviously because you love the celebrity who wrote it and are interested in reading about their life, but more times than not, you are treated to stories and essays that are often humorous, raw, and uplifting about the fact that we are all human and our struggles unite us. Especially for comedians like Tiffany Haddish, whose incomes depend on being funny, we learn about some of their very unfunny struggles that have led them to a life of comedy and before we know it, we don’t feel so alone anymore.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Like many before me, I came across Sylvia Plath’s only novel The Bell Jar at a time when I was feeling depressed. The difference was, much like my battle with OCD, I was very far away from being in a place where I felt comfortable confronting that depression. I had first read Plath’s poetry in high school, based on a recommendation from a favorite English teacher, and I could never stop reading. Her words resonated with me in a way I was not yet ready to deal with. The following year, I read The Bell Jar for the first time and wasn’t really impressed by it. I read it again the year after that, hoping to find what other people had found, but still wasn’t really getting it. It was only last year, when I read it for a third time for an essay I had to write for a university class, did I finally realize that Esther Greenwood’s struggles, especially as a young person, painfully mirrored my own. And it was in that moment that I realized I had grown so much since then, suddenly grateful for the wisdom The Bell Jar had passed on to me without even realizing it.
I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott
“You can stand by your past decisions even if they took you to a present where you don’t belong anymore.” Reading I Miss You When I Blink felt like both looking into a mirror and a session with a really cool therapist who you also want as a friend. This heartwarming essay collection covers everything from anxiety, becoming an adult, existential angst, the ups and downs of married life, and the realization that sometimes following all of the rules laid out in your head gets you to the exact opposite of where you want to be. The perfect read for every detoxing perfectionist.
Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me by Lily Collins
In this memoir, actress Lily Collins gets honest about some of the issues that plagued her life both in and out of the spotlight: body image, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-confidence, to name only a few subjects. It’s hardly groundbreaking in this day and age for a young actress to speak up about issues like body image and self-confidence, but what set this memoir apart for me (aside from the fact that I’m obsessed with Lily Collins) is how she can be both open and honest about painful parts of her past while also making her prose so light and cheerful—as if to say, “We all go through this nonsense. Life is tough, but so are you, and I’m here to remind you that we’re going to get through it together.” I kind of want her to be my life coach now.
Nobody Cares by Anne T. Donahue
This book has brought me immeasurable comfort and guidance at times when it feels like my mind and my ambitions are trying to kill me. In Nobody Cares, an essay collection about “the messy business of being alive” (relatable), author Anne T. Donahue tackles everything from anxiety, failure, jobs, productivity, and being obsessed with feeling important—poetically reminding us at every turn that nobody cares: nobody is special, nobody is more important than anyone else, and how that can be liberating. We are all just trying our very best, and our very best is all we can do. “Sometimes I still struggle to reconcile who I am now with the persons I was. But I also know not to worry, since whoever I am right now is exactly who I need to be.”
Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest
In this mental health memoir, English journalist Emma Forrest chronicles the breakdown that led her to finally seek help for her struggles. Twenty-two and living alone in New York City, Forrest had nowhere left to run when she realized that her quirks had gone beyond eccentricity (once again, relatable). While discussing her own treatment for depression and mania, the author also reminds all of us that there can be beauty among disaster, and that sometimes everything has to become a mess in order for us to learn how to clean it up.