Content/Trigger Warning: This article contains discussion of a wide variety of mental health issues, including (but not limited to) depression, anxiety, suicide, alcoholism, grief, postpartum depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please contact SAMHSA’s free national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Books can help us feel less alone in our struggles, and give us invaluable insight into the struggles of others whose experiences we may not share. In that spirit, here are 12 beautifully written mental health memoirs that we think everyone should read.
If you’d like to purchase any of these books, we’d highly recommend seeking out your local independent bookstore. Your business helps ensure the survival of these vital cultural institutions during this difficult time.
1. A Room with a Darker View by Claire Phillips
A daughter breaks the family silence about her mother’s schizophrenia, reframing hospitalizations, paranoia, illness, and caregiving through a feminist lens.
Claire Phillips’ elegantly written and unflinching memoir about her mother, an Oxford-trained lawyer diagnosed in mid-life with paranoid schizophrenia, challenges current conceptions about mental illness, relapse and recovery, as well as difficulties caring for an aging parent with a chronic disease. Told in fragments, the work also becomes a startling reflection on mother-daughter relationships during the evolution of 20th-century feminism.
Read our interview with Claire Phillips about A Room with a Darker View here.
2. He Came In With It by Miriam Feldman
Miriam Feldman is a celebrated artist in Los Angeles whose idyllic life was uprooted when her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In her tireless search for help and answers, she learns about the shocking shortfalls of our mental health system and the destructive impact of mental illness stigma, shame, and isolation. He Came In With It reveals how one mother’s struggle to help her son created for her a new definition of family, forgiveness, and forging ahead…with no false facades.
3. W-3 by Bette Howland
First published in 1974, the memoir that launched Bette Howland’s career is being reissued as part of A Public Space’s ongoing revival of “one of the significant writers of her generation.” (Saul Bellow).
In 1968, Bette Howland was thirty-one, a single mother of two young sons, struggling to support her family on the part-time salary of a librarian; and laboring day and night at her typewriter to be a writer. One afternoon, while staying at her friend Saul Bellow’s apartment, she swallowed a bottle of pills. W-3 is both an extraordinary portrait of the community of Ward 3, the psychiatric wing of the Chicago hospital where she was admitted; and record of a defining moment in a writer’s life. The book itself would be her salvation: she wrote herself out of the grave.
4. When Screams Become Whispers by Bob Krulish, with Alee Anderson
When Screams Become Whispers is a raw look at bipolar disorder and the mania it drives that will allow loved ones to recognize and understand key identifiers, thus enabling them to better help. Ultimately, Bob Krulish’s story sheds light on the systemic problems deeply rooted in the American mental healthcare system, highlighting the danger present when treatment is not readily available. Through great storytelling, readers are gifted with a greater appreciation for the need for de-stigmatization, demystification, greater resources, and a supportive community for those suffering from this poorly understood disorder.
5. I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder by Sarah Kurchak
An autistic writer’s memoir of the detrimental effects of pretending to be normal, and her impassioned call to redefine what is considered a successful life.
Sarah Kurchak is autistic. She hasn’t let that get in the way of pursuing her dream to become a writer, or to find love, but she has let it get in the way of being in the same room with someone chewing food loudly, and of cleaning her bathroom sink. In I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder, Kurchak examines the Byzantine steps she took to become “an autistic success story,” how the process almost ruined her life and how she is now trying to recover.
6. Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong
In this intimate and moving graphic memoir, Teresa Wong writes and illustrates the story of her struggle with postpartum depression in the form of a letter to her daughter Scarlet. Equal parts heartbreaking and funny, Dear Scarlet perfectly captures the quiet desperation of those suffering from PPD and the profound feelings of inadequacy and loss. As Teresa grapples with her fears and anxieties and grasps at potential remedies, coping mechanisms, and her mother’s Chinese elixirs, we come to understand one woman’s battle against the cruel dynamics of postpartum depression.
7. How to Be Depressed by George Scialabba
George Scialabba is a prolific critic and essayist known for his incisive, wide-ranging commentary on literature, philosophy, religion, and politics. He is also, like millions of others, a lifelong sufferer from clinical depression. In How To Be Depressed, Scialabba presents an edited selection of his mental health records spanning decades of treatment, framed by an introduction and an interview with renowned podcaster Christopher Lydon. The book also includes a wry and ruminative collection of “tips for the depressed,” organized into something like a glossary of terms—among which are the names of numerous medications he has tried or researched over the years. Together, these texts form an unusual, searching, and poignant hybrid of essay and memoir, inviting readers into the hospital and the therapy office as Scialabba and his caregivers try to make sense of this baffling disease.
8. It’s My Party by Jeanette Watson
The favored granddaughter of IBM’s Thomas J. Watson reveals a life of glamour, depressive battles, and hard-won joy and peace.
Born into a celebrity family (her father was Watson’s son, who turned the company into the powerhouse it still is today, and her mother, Olive, had dated Howard Hughes and John F. Kennedy), Jeannette Watson’s larger-than-life family hid a number of secrets. Behind a facade of order and glamour, Tom Watson often experienced dark moods; his depression was something he passed on to his daughter. Jeannette felt she could never measure up to her mother-a legendary beauty-and kept her nose buried in books.
Through her years as a debutante, then young wife and mother, Watson kept her feelings under wraps until she had a mental breakdown. As part of her fight to heal herself, she left her husband, taking their son and moving to New York City to experience its heady 1970s freedoms. She opened the legendary Upper East Side bookstore Books & Co., which became a gathering place for literati. Her personal life soared once more when she met her second husband, Alex Sanger, grandson of Planned Parenthood’s founder, with whom she had two more sons. After a long and fulfilling run, the bookstore closed and Watson found her way down a new path to become a spiritual healer.
9. Still by Emma Hansen
A moving, candid account of one woman’s experience with stillbirth.
Emma Hansen is 39 weeks and 6 days pregnant when she feels her baby go quiet inside of her. At the hospital, her worst fears are confirmed: doctors explain that her baby has died, and she will need to deliver him, still.
Hansen gives birth to her son, Reid, amidst an avalanche of grief. Nine days later, she publishes a candid essay on her website sharing photos from the delivery room. Much to her surprise, her essay goes viral, sparking positive reactions around the world. Still shares what comes next: a struggle with grief and confusion alongside a desire to better understand stillbirth, which is experienced by more than two million women annually, but rarely talked about in public.
At once honest, brave, and uplifting, Still is about one woman’s search for her own definition of motherhood, even as she faces one of life’s greatest challenges: learning to live after loss.
10. We Are the Luckiest by Laura McKowen
A frank, fresh, and empowering take on facing addiction, doing recovery, and savoring the joys of a new way of living.
What could possibly be “lucky” about addiction? Absolutely nothing, thought Laura McKowen when drinking brought her to her knees. As she puts it, she “kicked and screamed . . . wishing for something — anything — else” to be her issue. The people who got to drink normally, she thought, were so damn lucky.
But in the midst of early sobriety, when no longer able to anesthetize her pain and anxiety, she realized that she was actually the lucky one. Lucky to feel her feelings, live honestly, really be with her daughter, change her legacy. She recognized that “those of us who answer the invitation to wake up, whatever our invitation, are really the luckiest of all.”
Here, in straight-talking chapters filled with personal stories, McKowen addresses issues such as facing facts, the question of AA, and other people’s drinking. Without sugarcoating the struggles of sobriety, she relentlessly emphasizes the many blessings of an honest life, one without secrets and debilitating shame.
11. Long Walk Out in the Woods by Adam B. Hill, MD
A physician shares the darkest depths of his depression, suicidal ideation, addiction, and the important lessons he learned through years of personal recovery.
Pediatric oncologist and palliative care physician Dr. Adam B. Hill suffered despair and disillusionment with the culture of medicine, culminating in a spiral of depression, alcoholism, and an active suicidal plan. Then while in recovery from active addiction, he lost a colleague to suicide, further revealing the extent of the secrecy and broken systems contributing to an epidemic of professional distress within the medical field. By sharing his harrowing story, Dr. Hill helps identify the barriers and obstacles standing in the way of mental health recovery, while pleading for a revolutionary new approach to how we treat individuals in substance use recovery. In fighting stereotypes/stigma and teaching vulnerability, compassion, and empathy, Hill’s work is being lauded as a road map for better practices at a time when medical professionals around the world are struggling in silence.
12. The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code by Judith Hoare
The true story of the little-known mental-health pioneer who revolutionized how we see the defining problem of our era: anxiety.
Panic, depression, sorrow, guilt, disgrace, obsession, sleeplessness, low confidence, loneliness, agoraphobia…The international bestseller Hope and Help for Your Nerves, first published in 1962 and still in print, has helped tens of millions of people to overcome all of these, and continues to do so. Yet even as letters and phone calls from readers around the world flooded in, thanking her for helping to improve—and in some cases to save—their lives, Dr Claire Weekes was dismissed as underqualified and overly populist by the psychiatric establishment. Just who was this woman?
Claire Weekes was driven by a restless and unconventional mind that saw her become the first woman to earn a Doctor of Science degree at Australia’s oldest university, win global plaudits for her research into evolution, and take a turn as a travel agent, before embarking on a career in medicine. But it was a mistaken diagnosis of tuberculosis that would set her heart racing and push her towards integrating all she’d learned into a practical treatment for anxiety—a tried-and-true method now seen as state-of-the-art 30 years after her death. This book is the first to tell her remarkable story.