7 Tips For Reading With Mental Health Challenges

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

A version of this post originally went out to subscribers of “What’s Up in YA?,” the twice weekly Book Riot YA newsletter you can subscribe to here


Don't Call Me Crazy book coverMy YA anthology (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start The Conversation About Mental Health released back in October, and it’s a book I’m especially proud of and glad could exist in the world right now. I’ve written extensively about YA books that take on mental illness, and you can read some of the posts linked at the bottom of the newsletter, along with some other great resources.

I wanted to offer up some of the things I do when I struggle with my depression and anxiety when it comes to reading and talking about books. It’s my hope this not only feels useful for anyone who struggles with mental illness, but also that it’s useful both for those who have rough mental health stretches (even without an illness) and those who work with teens who themselves may be dealing with them. The more tools in the pocket, the better equipped we all are.

Part of why reading can become so daunting when one’s mental health is challenging is that it requires use of executive functioning, which can shut down. Executive functioning is in charge of mental processes and skills, and it can become utterly exhausting or frustrating even thinking about picking up a book from one’s shelf. YA author Molly Backes goes into the further, in this excellent talk about the impossible task on Twitter.

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As always with mental health, your mileage may vary. These are things that have worked for me.

  1. Read something entirely out of the norm.

    Changing up formats can be a big game-changer when it comes to reading. The same can be said about changing up genres or age categories. Since I lean toward YA reading, sometimes while dealing with severe anxiety or depression, all I want to do is read a bunch of magazines or peruse graphic novels for the art. I let myself do this. I’ve found that reading romance has been a big winner for me lately on this front; the fact I know going in that the book will end in a Happily Ever After is predictable and satisfying.

  2. Revisit an old favorite book.

    One of the biggest challenges I face with reading when I’m not feeling my best is that I don’t want to be surprised by something that could trigger strong emotional response. Picking up a book I’ve read and loved before solves this: I know going in what’ll happen and I can more passively enjoy the ride. It might sound odd, but my rereading tends toward horror/creepy. I find them to be comforting, since those worlds are so different from the one I’m in.

  3. Schedule reading time like a date (and/or make it a date).

    Dealing with mental health sometimes means wandering through a day without a plan. It’s not that I don’t want to accomplish things or that I don’t need to meet deadlines. I do. But, depression wants me to stay in bed or worry about it later or not at all because it doesn’t really matter and no one really cares (and anxiety then throws in the fun of “you need to get the thing due in a month done today or else you’re a failure”). This can mean that things like reading—which is both pleasure for me, as well as related to the work I do—can fall to the wayside. By scheduling time to read in my day and following through, I’m able to ensure I get some words in my mind that aren’t my own. I’ve made this a routine when I’m functioning well and managing my illnesses, and I’m able to continue those routines when I’m not doing so hot. I make listening to audiobooks a part of my getting ready in the morning routine, and I’ve found that, even when I’m struggling to get anything done, the silence while brushing my hair and teeth encourages me to hit play on my audiobook and get those words in.

  4. Clean the shelves and/or library holds and checkouts.

    Nothing feels better than a clean slate, especially when everything else is hard. I might have been excited about all of those library books I checked out, but there’s also something satisfying in returning them all, clearing my fines, and having a fresh start. Another tool I use is cleaning my personal collection: sometimes it means donating books I know I’ll never read and other times, it’s a matter of reorganizing the shelves that have gotten out of hand. Each of these tasks has a satisfying visual outcome. There’s a completion and a freshness and newness.

  5. Listen.

    Audiobooks are a lifesaver when I’m having bad mental health spells. I mentioned above the power of routine, but even more than that, audiobooks can be consumed while I am doing literally nothing. I can lay in bed and listen. I can listen while going for a walk. I can listen while working (or attempting to work). When I’m unable to concentrate on a story, though, I also find myself turning to podcasts. Book podcasts abound, and sometimes listening to other people talk books is everything I need and didn’t realize.

  6. Focus on helping other people find a good book by writing about recent favorites or talking with others about books that remind you of them.

    Whether or not you’re a librarian, a teacher, or a blogger who regularly writes book lists, this trick can be valuable. There are a couple of benefits: first, it’s satisfying to make something like a book list and be able to share it and second, it’s an opportunity to reach out to people in a way that’s not threatening and allows you to pass along your passion to them when everything feels impossible. If focusing on other people doesn’t sound appealing, there is value in writing personal book lists, too. Top five books from childhood or ten books with great book covers or seven books you read but absolutely loathed can make for valuable (and low-stakes) self-reflection. You may not do anything with these lists, and that’s okay. It might even be part of the point.

  7. Allow myself to simply not read.

    Sometimes, it’s okay to just be. There is no shame in not reading, especially when it ends up impinging upon your mental wellness.


Some further reading on mental health/illness in the world of YA: