8 Books to Celebrate Mental Health Month

May is Mental Health Month. How about a list of reads all about it?

Hello again from quarantine! If you didn’t know, May is mental health month, and honestly I think we could all use a little help there, especially right now. Mental health is something I’ve been passionate about for a while, both as a neurobiologist and as a person who has struggled with mental health issues. And one great way to see through someone else’s eyes, especially if you’ve never experienced any mental health issues, is to read other people’s stories.

So, to celebrate and spread the word about some of my favorites, here are ten books with strong mental health themes that I enjoyed. Disclaimer: just because I enjoyed them doesn’t mean everyone will. If you loved or hated them, let me know in the comments! And if you want even more recommendations, here is a list of 40 great YA books that deal with mental health.

1. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

This is a book I read within the last few months, and I was absolutely blown away by the beautiful, fantastical storytelling. This book tells the story of Leigh, a teenage girl who recently lost her mother to suicide after a long battle with depression. Unlike many mental health stories out there, this one focuses on the people left behind after suicide and depression and is a deep look into one girl’s grief.

2. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

If you’ve followed me for a while, you may know that Fangirl is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s emotionally intense and ends on a warm, fuzzy note. But for this list, I’d like to highlight what this book brings to the table: it tells the story of two sisters moving into college and growing apart, a father with mental health issues, and a main character who deals with severe anxiety.

3. Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Okay, so this one is really similar to Fangirl…a shy, anxious girl in love with a world she built, and no one knows she’s the author. But this one focuses on what happens when her anonymity is broken and suddenly everyone finds out who she is. So, so good, and if you like Fangirl, you’ll like this one, too!

4. Something Real by Heather Demetrios

This one is a little different, as it deals with the aftermath of growing up in the spotlight. The main character was a child on a reality show that went off the air – something she was all too happy to leave behind. But after she’s finally learning how to cope with life as a normal teen, her family suddenly wants to bring the show back. A very interesting and unique take on child stardom.

5. The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

This is definitely a bit more difficult to read, particularly if you’re dealing with depression, but if you’re able, it’s so good. This story starts after the main character attempts suicide and follows her journey through recovery. And it doesn’t lie about how hard it is to get through something like that, which is one reason I love it. This book also happens to have one of my all-time favorite covers.

6. The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

My last three picks are all by the same author, but she writes many well-done mental health books. This one in particular grabbed me for its dive into what it can be like to be family to an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD. Like The Astonishing Color of After, it’s nice to see a book where the main character is family to someone who is struggling, a good reminder that family of a struggling person need just as much support.

7. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

I will admit that not everyone likes this book as much as I do, but this is an interesting intersection of issues: eating disorders, hallucinations, and grief. I think it does a really great job at showing how multiple issues can be interconnected, and like The Memory of Light, it offers a realistic view of therapy while still ending on a hopeful note. I really appreciate that in my mental health fiction.

8. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

I can’t end without mentioning this classic, award-winning book. Speak is the story of a high school girl in the aftermath of sexual assault and the way she must cope with what happened and with her classmates and the adults around her. As I said, this is definitely a classic, and it’s won its awards for a reason.

BONUS: All That Glimmers by Selina J. Eckert

This novella, releasing on May 15, is an exploration of grief and moving on, set in the fantasy world of contemporary Fae. Hallie is two years out from her best friend’s death, but she is determined to bring her back…especially when she finds a Fae secret that could mean putting her world back together again.

You can get it on Amazon or any other retailer.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’ve struggled with mental health before or not, I hope this list gives you a strong set of reads for the month of May. If you’ve read any of these, please feel free to let me know what you thought of them in the comments. And if you have any other recommendations, let’s chat about them!

See you in the comments. ❤

The Therapeutic Power of Writing

Did you know writing can be a powerful tool…for anyone?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, life is super crazy right now. There’s a pandemic outside our doors, the media is telling us the world is ending, and we still have to deal with life along with social isolation (though as an introvert, I really don’t mind that last part so much).

But it does get to be a lot to cope with, especially with all the hype about the risks and the constant updates. And the memes. And the people hoarding supplies (please don’t do that).

So how can we deal with these uncertain and anxious times? There are a lot of good coping options out there (and I encourage you to find what works for you, either through internet searches, therapy, or trial and error), but today I want to talk about the therapeutic power of writing.

Hint: writing isn’t just for “writers.”

So how can writing help us cope with difficult situations?

Writing is a way that we can truly examine our thoughts and feelings, to put them clearly down on paper in a way that we can understand things that weren’t clear to us before. It can help us think through difficult times and work out problems we struggle with, to better understand ourselves. We can think in complete thoughts and sentences by writing it out, and we can avoid censoring ourselves when we write just for us and give ourselves permission to examine our deeper thoughts and feelings.

Writing can also be a type of catharsis, especially in fiction or memoir writing. A chance to say something that happened. To find the resolution we wish we’d had. To finally say the thing we thought of days later. This is one reason I love first drafts. With a first draft, I can say whatever I want to the person who yelled at me at the grocery store! (that didn’t happen…at least not to me) And then, after I’ve gotten it out of my system, I can erase it from my next draft.

But what kinds of ways can we write? How do we apply these ideas?

  • As I mentioned above, you can write an experience out as fiction. This can distance yourself a bit while still leaving some of yourself in the story. Plus, it can always be erased in a later draft.
  • You can journal it out. I used to do this all the time, and just the process of putting my thoughts down let me get them out of my head so I stopped cycling through them over and over. This is also a way you can think to yourself without censoring yourself. Just letting you be honest with you.
  • You can write a letter. You don’t have to send it, but writing a letter to someone and saying what you’re thinking and feeling can help you articulate yourself better and figure out what needs to be said to them versus what you just needed to express and understand for yourself. I do this, too, so I can process how I’m feeling about something that happened with another person…and why. And how to fix it.
  • You can put it down into poetry. I’m still learning this one, but when I was younger, I found that I dealt best with really strong pain or other emotion by putting it into poetry. Now, mind you, they weren’t good poems. But they were only for me.

So if you find yourself getting overwhelmed in these strange times, maybe try picking up a pen. At the very least, you’ve tried something new. And at best, you’ve found something you enjoy that helps you process difficult things.

Either way, I hope you find the thing that works for you.

Keep writing friends. Or whatever it is you do. Stay safe, and stay healthy. ❤

Making It Personal: The Trials of Writing from Personal Experience

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you are probably familiar with the expression “write what you know.” And it’s pretty accurate to making a good story. When we write within our experience in some way, we lend an authenticity to our writing and our stories that connects with readers and makes them want to stick around to read more.

But writing what you know isn’t always easy.

Writing personal events, even if they are fictionalized versions that may not address everything you experienced, can be brutal. Especially with a traumatic event or with a situation that the author finds personally triggering. It can bring about inner conflicts just like the ones experienced prior, it can set off new episodes of depression, anxiety, or any other type of disorder it initially triggered, and it can be discouraging and painful to remember.

Recently, I wrote a scene that hit me pretty hard. It was a fictionalized scene of one of the hardest days of my life, and it kicked off a years-long bout with depression at that time. It took me a long time to move past it and sort of be okay with how things went down, three years to be able to write this story, and then I reached this same point in the writing and it’s been difficult. All over again, I am struggling with an old demon.

And then there are other considerations about being completely truthful in an account. First and foremost, how will what I say in this story affect my career outside of writing? And how will my friends and family react to it?

As much as we want to tell the story, there is always that worry about how it will affect us, and it doesn’t matter if the fear is unfounded or not. We are forced to consider how other people will view what we write and how it will influence our real lives outside the story. It’s a messy loop of what you want to say versus what you should say to protect yourself and your relationships. We question whether we should even be telling the story in the first place, but then that gives power to the people or experiences that haunt us. I’m still trying to find this line between telling the story and saying more than I should to avoid hurting myself and the people around me. And I still question how much is enough… and how much is too much.

So why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we torture ourselves by reliving difficult experiences through our writing? For me, there are a few pretty simple reasons.

  1. Writing can be an incredibly cathartic practice. First drafts especially are an excellent place for writers to purge their fantasies, to say things they wished they could’ve said before, or to push all of their negative emotions out onto a page where it’s clearer, less muddled by their own thoughts and problems and pain. I can say anything I want in a first draft; it can easily be wiped away in the next.
  2. Writing can give us clarity. It provides a concise way to state what you know about something and, eventually, a way to look at a situation more objectively.
  3. Writing can give us power over a time we felt powerless. Let’s face it. Life isn’t always in our control, or things happen that we feel we have no control over. But writing? We choose what to write, we choose what to say. Even if we never share it. We are able to write the story as we see fit.
  4. Writing through the difficult times can connect us to other people. Ultimately, this is why I write. I want my experiences and the stories that come from them to give others hope and strength to get through their own difficult times.

I don’t know if everything I’ve written recently will see the light of day, because of my own anxieties and other considerations, but I know, hard as it is, I had to tell this story. I had to set it down on paper, this account of a hard time in my life, if for nothing else than to express it on my own terms. Maybe I can share this story one day without any fear at all, to connect with the people I originally wanted to touch with the story.

But for now, it is enough to write.

What about you? Have you struggled through writing something personal? How did you cope with the difficulties? Tell me in the comments!

Writing When Life Gets Crazy

As writers, we often find joy, peace, and stress relief in our writing (ignore those infuriating, anxiety-inducing things like “sharing” and “querying” for a moment). Once we dedicate ourselves to our writing, we even find that we want to make time for it on a regular basis, that it gives us excitement, energy, and purpose.

But when we are just starting out or when our lives start changing, that can be more difficult. Maybe we have full-time jobs or responsibilities that cut into our writing time. Maybe we have a lot of hobbies that eat up our free time. Or maybe events happen in your life that change your ability to write for a time, such as planning parties or weddings or starting a new relationship.

Personally, I encountered this between the end of March and beginning of May. I got married on April 21 (yay!), which meant that for the weeks leading up to the wedding I was insanely busy and stressed (boo!). It also meant that the weeks following the wedding I was traveling and recovering from being insanely busy and stressed.

And you know what? Not having the time, creative energy, or motivation to sit down at the keyboard took its toll on me. I became irritable and anxious about everything, even toward the man I love more than anyone. I started having stress-related health issues (which I’m still trying to fix). I battled my anxiety and my depression to keep from losing it completely (when they say weddings are stressful, it’s an understatement).

All because I had no outlet and I let myself get caught up in not doing the things that restore me. I wasn’t creating and my dreams felt stagnant. I wasn’t working toward them. My job felt pointless and unfulfilling. And yeah, there was good reason I wasn’t working toward my dreams, but still, being able to do something to move you toward your goals is SO IMPORTANT. I knew it was a temporary situation, but I really did suffer for it.

So, in hindsight, let’s discuss how to deal with your writing (or any other dreams) when life gets a little out of control. And maybe next time, I won’t lose it so much either!

  1. Use the time you can find. It can be hard to find time to do things that restore you when you’re busy and stressed and ready to explode. But you know what? You can. It won’t necessarily be your first choice, but if it’s something important to you or something you need for your own self care (like writing for me), then you need to just do it.
    So what do I mean? Can you set your alarm five minutes earlier in the morning and just write for five minutes? What about staying up five minutes later? Brainstorm while you’re on your commute? Take a couple minutes out of your lunch break? As soon as you get home, scrawl a sentence into your work in progress? These are all tiny, but if you can do even one of them, it can make a huge difference in how you feel. It’s small, but it’s not stagnant. You’re keeping your creative brain active and awake. I wish I had done that this past month instead of letting everything sit and fester.
  2. Cut yourself some slack. Listen. Life gets rough sometimes. You run into issues or things get away from you. It happens to everyone. Don’t beat yourself up. We’re all doing the best we can. Your dreams will still be there no matter what you do. Try to take little steps, but if you can’t even do that? Give yourself a break. As writers, we have enough forces coming at us in the form of rejections and critiques and reviews that we really don’t need to add to the negativity just by opening our own mouths.
  3. Take care of yourself. Make sure you put yourself and your health above trying to crank out work. Yes, do those things that you have to, like wedding planning or building a relationship or whatever it is that is interfering with your writing schedule… but don’t forget that your health is the first priority. That includes mental health. So take that bubble bath. Read that book before bed. Take a walk. Just take care of yourself in whatever way you need to in order to get through the tough time.
  4. Refuel yourself. Listen, tough times drain us. They drain us emotionally, physically, mentally, and creatively. Don’t expect yourself to jump right back in as soon as things get better. You need to recover. Make sure you’re putting coins in the bank of creativity: keep notes while you’re busy of things you can come back to later, make every experience count toward writing fodder (as I call it… this is anything I consider usable writing material). But while you do that, give yourself time to relax and refill creative tanks without pressuring yourself to get back to your former writing performance. It takes time. For me, it was my honeymoon. I spent a week with no responsibility, seeing things I’d never seen. And by the third day, I was already inventing story ideas in my head. Refueling is vital!
  5. Keep dreaming. Don’t give up, even if you can’t be as involved and active as you want to be. Life can be hard. But don’t let it steal your joy.

Writers are such a unique breed. We need to write to take care of ourselves, yet our writing is also one of our greatest sources of stress and anxiety, especially when we can’t work on it. So, knowing this, we need to work extra hard during the tough times to take care of ourselves and do what we can to keep the creativity flowing. Or to at least make deposits in the creativity bank. If we can’t take care of ourselves, our writing is going to suffer, and so are we. Take care of yourself.

For now, that’s all. I’m ready to dive back into more creation! Good luck, and please share your tips and comments below. I’d love to know how you deal with your writing when life is busy!