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. ❤

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!

Getting in Your Own Way

The writer’s guide to overcoming yourself.

Recently I had an incredible opportunity surface for my writing career. However, there was a bit of a trial period, and there was no guarantee I would actually be kept around after that trial was over. I sent in my materials, received a response from the person in charge, and sat back to wait, filling my time with my own writing, Camp NaNoWriMo, critiquing two friends’ projects, and generally just living my life.

Well, the two week mark hit since I had last heard from this person. I began wondering if I should send a follow-up email, and I mentioned this to someone in my life. In their attempt to keep me from having my heart broken, to keep me from getting my hopes up only to be disappointed, they made a statement about how I would have, should have, heard back within a week if they were interested.

I was heartbroken to hear it. I lost my joy from a great weekend, I went to bed early, I called off work the next day, all because I felt so discouraged and like my dreams were impossible, like I and my writing weren’t good enough to make it as a career, no matter how far off that might be. Pieces of my depression returned, all because of that statement, of wondering if I was wasting my time on my dream job, on trying to get my dream job past my day job. To make it worse, my day job, which was once a job I really wanted and loved, has been a bit miserable the last few months because of a specific project we’ve been working on. If I can’t even enjoy the job that earns me the money to do what I love, what’s the point?

So I felt discouraged in my dream and in my life, I felt like I was wasting my time, and I was starting to wonder why I should bother. I was getting in my own way, letting my head run away with a spiral of depressive thoughts and broken dreams that might not even be real. It was a fight to open up my work in progress, let alone get out of bed.

As writers, as creatives, I feel like we are more prone to these kinds of feelings sometimes. And it can be so easy to let these things stop us from doing what we love. So here are a few tips to deal with those times we get in our own way.

  1. Don’t quit. Keep writing or painting or drawing or whatever it is you do. When you’re feeling low, try to make yourself create through it, even if it’s as small as a sentence. Don’t let your head win.
  2. Remember why you started. For most of us, we create because we love it. Yeah, it’d be awesome to be able to do it full time, to really have our dream job, but we create for the simple joy of creation. Remind yourself of this, and let yourself enjoy the process without worrying about the logistics, at least for a while.
  3. Find supportive people. It’s been immensely helpful to have other writer friends as I navigate this process of publishing, of finding an agent. These people who share my passion and want the same things I want can spur me on and encourage me, and they actually understand all the bits and pieces we encounter as writers, including the discouraging things we find. And for me, on occasion I need to talk to a professional to deal with the depressive things that hold me back. Find your support network for your creativity.

It is so easy to get in your head and keep yourself from following your dreams and expressing your passions. Sometimes all we need is that little reminder of why we started in the first place and the push to never give up.

For me, I’m going to do my best to keep going despite the negative feelings in my head. But what about you? Have you experienced these feelings before? How did you combat them? How did they affect you and your creative process?