Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Book Recommendations and The Stories of Mental Illness

I had hoped to post a blog with BookBloggers International for their Mental Health awareness month series. But, I totally dropped the ball. Ain’t that the way? Anyway, here’s the post I would have posted for them.

I thought it would be easy to write a post about a book or two that I have recommended to my patients to read about depression or anxiety or whatever other things are going on for them. And I think it would be one way to go with a Mental Health-focused post. But, that’s not what I’m going to write about, exactly.

Books are a great way to learn about individuals and their stories as part of a way to increase awareness, understanding, and perspective taking. But this post is really more about how you don’t want to get too caught up in just one story.

The reason why people get so upset about the limited number of books and media representations of brown and black people is because people start to think that those representations are THE REPRESENTATION of all brown and black people. Right? We get that. The “easy- to- think- of” becomes the stereotype. That’s actually part of the role that media plays in maintaining barriers between people, contributing to the Availability Heuristic you remember from Psych 101, but let’s not digress too much, as usual!

This same thing happens with limited stories about people with depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar, substance abuse, schizophrenia, autism, PTSD, and concerns about being a sexual minority. As a side note, being a sexual minority is NOT a mental or behavioral health issue in and of itself, no matter what anybody tells you and no matter what mental health professionals once thought. Did you know that being unhappy about your enslavement used to be diagnosable? Seriously, we've come a long way but we've got a long way to go. Anyway, I include any talk about LGBTQI folks because they are at increased risk for mental health problems mostly because of the social crap they have to deal with, and often benefit from therapy to help sort out all that stuff.

How about a concrete- ish example of this limited story thing: there are over 4,000 possible symptom combinations for a person to be diagnosed with ADHD. There are over 15,000 symptom combinations for Major Depression. (There are a lot of possible symptoms and you don't  have to have all of them.) That’s in addition to the other criteria about how long there have been problems and the level of impairment. When someone says they have been diagnosed with Depression, you may know a little something about them, but really, you don’t know that much, especailly if they are part of the growing number of people who use the word depression to mean Sadness.

This is the problem with flippant recommendations for books related to complex illnesses. Every one experiences illnesses in different ways. And if you have more than one diagnosis, poor social support, or live in poverty, forget about it! It gets harder and harder to find a book with a story that really shows your experience, but people who read those books might think they “Get you.” Hell, you might even read it and wonder about your own symptoms and diagnosis because your situation looks different. What I find in books is a mixed bag: like, a great representation of a disorder with a terrible example of therapy or vice versa; or an oversimplified presentation of family dynamics with a great discussion about the combined need for different kinds of interventions; or someone who had no problems "coming out" as gay but everyone thinks that’s why they are sad all the time, never mind that they are actually grieving the loss of their grandparents.

Here’s a couple of examples with actual books:

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is a great book about a boy who has a history of mood and problematic behavior. He’s been diagnosed as bipolar. However, he has a trauma history. No one talks in the book about the role of trauma on emotion regulation or that addressing the trauma might actually be the better way to go as opposed to thinking about it as bipolar disorder. Also, the therapist pretty much sucks in that book.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness: Here is a book that is mostly about the teenagers who are not the chosen ones trying to live their lives in a world where “chosen one” things keep happening; Think of all those extra kids at Hogwarts, for example. Or better yet, think about those kids at the school Harry Potter went to BEFORE Hogwarts. They may get a sense of some magical stuff but they really don't know and probably don't talk about it. The main character has OCD and his sister has an eating disorder and the family is just generally a hot mess. There is a scene with a therapist that is stellar. And the fact that each of the kids has different things going on for them, not just strict OCD/ eating disorder stuff, like real people is really great. [My Review]

In Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, Ms. Lawson presents a bunch of essays about her own experiences with depression and anxiety. These two sets of problems go together pretty much always, by the way. The essays are, at times, funny, witty, insightful, boring, and totally random. She does a great job of talking about the ups and downs of mood (which is actually how mood is) and that sometimes you have to make a decision to act even if you feel like crap (which is actually how treatment works). But you also can’t beat yourself up too much if you just need a wallow day.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini is a story (maybe a fictionalized version of his experience) about a young man who feels passively suicidal and checks himself unwittingly into an adult inpatient psych ward. It was actually quite good, but my favorite part was the fact that the MC gets to know other people in the hospital, realizing that his is not the only story in the world. [My review]

These books are all great, in different ways for different reasons. No book should be expected to represent everything to everyone and if someone is really struggling with their own experiences, having the opportunity to talk with people about what they are experiencing and what they are reading about it can be an important part of their whole journey.
However, just like Huckleberry Finn isn’t the only sort of little boy you’ll meet in Missouri, Ms. Lawson’s isn’t the only tale of mental illness. It’s a pretty good one, though.

Side rant: Someone on Goodreads was all pissed about Burned by Ellen Hopkins being a "bad" representation of real- life Mormons. And people hate Twilight because it's a bad representation of real life teen relationships. I don't disagree with either of these points. I disagree with the idea that there isn't a role for bad representations in literature. Of course, I've thought about starting a collection of offensive cookie jars so what the fuck do I know? But it seems that diversity in storytelling includes the craptastic just as much as it includes the glorious. 
I asked other therapists I work with about books they recommend to the people/ families that they work with. Below is a list of what they came up with. I have tried to put these books into categories, mostly based on what topics people said that they usually recommended them for. But just like in life, most of these stories can be used as examples of more than one thing.

Family Changes: Adoption, Foster care, and Loss
Run – Fiction: transracial adoption
Buffalo soldier – Fiction: grief, foster care
Slipping by Cathleen Davitt Bell – fiction: death of a grandparent

Mood and Suicide:
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven- depression, suicide, mania
The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon – Depression
Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson – memoir, essays

Adjustment and Trauma:
We Are Called to Rise – Fiction
The Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley – Fiction, racial integration [My Review]
American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brenden Kiely [My Review]
The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knolls

Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier's Perspective - nonfiction
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town - nonfiction
We Need to Talk about Kevin - fiction, from through letters written by parents of a student/ school violence
Columbine by Dave Cullen - nonfiction, school violence

Anxiety and OCD:
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick – Fiction/ Urban fantasy
Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood - Memoir

Autism Spectrum Disorder:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's by John Elder Robinson

Parenting Children with Differences (e.g., Deafness, Intellectual Disability, Lesbian/Gay)
Far From the Tree by Andrew Soloman

Ariah by BR Sanders – fiction/ fantasy [My Review]
Some Assembly Required: The Not So Secret Life of a Transgender Teen – memoir

Related Link:
Go watch Chimamanda Adichie's Ted Talk (linked)

All pictures used in this post were found on the internet. Join the We Need Diverse Books conversation on social media using the hashtag.

Side Side Note:
I have attempted to put a reply below to Roberta's post twice. Trust me that it was eloquent and beautiful. But it disappeared so here's the rough version, the third time:

OMG! I posted a really long response to this and it is gone! Boo... the gist was: I don't mean to imply it. I mean to say it flat out. Representations are not TRUE or REAL. They are options, possibilities. It's taking a single representation as True that is the problem. Any single representation can be problematic, whether you agree with it or see it as good, or not. 


  1. I love this. Thanks for the discussion of how multifaceted these illnesses are--not just in their scope but in how they present. Great list of books too. Thank you.

  2. Great post - I have bookmarked it for future book references.
    The problem I have with the so-called diverse books usually is that I'd like to be sure the representation is done correctly - like, the mentally disabled character is not a made-up version of a real one, the queer character is not just a token, etc. Sometimes the reviews make me reconsider the idea of reading a book because someone says "this is not like such character would act/talk/think in real life". It's confusing. You seem to imply there's no absolute truth to be find in a book though. On the other hand, I'm afraid to lower the bar and fall for inaccurate representations...

  3. Just meant to say I was able to spot your reply to my comment. Sorry you lost it not once, which would be bad enough, but TWICE! Thank you for clarifying. I'll think about it :).