Guest Post: Novels about Mental Illness

7 Novels About Mental Illness
Stephen Bitsoli

Today I have a guest post from Stephen Bitsoli to bring a selection of novels that depict humans who struggle with mental health issues. It’s a topic close to my heart, so I’m truly delighted to have him here. I confess that I haven’t read any of these, so my to-be-read pile just got even longer!

Mental health issues, from major depressive disorder to chronic substance abuse, are part of the human condition, and so perfect fodder for fiction. Not every author who tackles the topic is up to the task, however. 

Authors with a first-hand acquaintance of the subject, among themselves, family members, or loved ones tend to speak to mental health disorders with a realism that just can’t be beaten. 

If you’re interested in some of the best fictional explorations of mental illness, these seven classic-to-recent novels should be on your reading pile.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1962 novel, perhaps best-known for its wildly successful 1963 stage and 1975 film adaptations, but the original novel stands on its own. Set in a psychiatric ward, run by the tyrannical and possibly psychopathic “Big Nurse” Ratched, it depicts her conflict with a disruptive new patient Randle Patrick McMurphy, as narrated by a fellow inmate, the schizophrenic “Chief” Bromden. McMurphy has faked mental illness (though some analysts have diagnosed him as having antisocial personality disorder) to avoid hard-time at a prison work camp for battery. Inspired by Kesey’s experience working at the psych ward of a veterans hospital in the 1950s, the novel focuses on the mental health care system. So-called medical “treatments” then included electroconvulsive (electroshock) therapy (ECT) and lobotomy.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963). The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical account of a young woman growing up in the 1950s and dealing with societal expectations and mental illness. The story follows Esther Greenwood, a young woman who struggles to feel excited about anything, including winning a prestigious internship at a New York City fashion magazine. She has a mental breakdown and fixates on death and suicide. The novel’s motif of a bell jar “suffocating” Esther’s world parallels Plath’s struggles with depression, suicidal ideation, and what may have been bipolar II disorder. It also describes psychiatric treatments of the time such as insulin shock therapy and ECT.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987). Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a former slave now living in freedom in Ohio after the Civil War. She is still mourning the death of her baby—she may have postpartum depression in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from her enslavement—who had no name but “Beloved.”  Sethe believes her baby’s spirit is haunting her. She is also tormented by the memories of life on the plantation. The theme of PTSD is similarly explored in another character, Paul D, who relives his physical and sexual abuse. Inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, Beloved is a brutal account of the atrocities of slavery and the effect of trauma on mental health that everyone should read at least once in their lifetime.

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb (1992). She’s Come Undone follows the story of Dolores Price, who, as a teenager, suffers emotional neglect due to her mother’s postpartum depression and her parents’ divorce. Later she binge eats due to her depression (or possibly cyclothymic disorder) until morbidly obese, experiences PTSD following a rape, and ends up in a wellness facility after a suicide attempt. After her release, a bad marriage, and more tragedy, she finds peace in her late-30s and accepts that her life is both good and enough. Lamb’s first published novel, an early Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection, has been translated into 18 languages. It’s an exploration of trauma, hope, and radical self-acceptance.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (2007). It’s Kind of a Funny Story follows the story of Craig Gilner, a teenager who is filled with ambition. After he’s admitted to a prestigious school, Craig finds himself buckling under the pressure from his teachers and parents. This eventually leads to disordered eating, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Craig starts taking medication but throws it away when he believes himself to be “cured”, causing a breakdown that puts him in a psychiatric hospital. The novel, based on author Ned Vizzini’s experiences in a psych ward, deals with themes of suicide, mental health care, and how society views those with psychological issues.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (2009). Wintergirls is the story of Lia, a teenage girl struggling with survivor’s guilt after the death of her best friend Cassie. In the wake of Cassie’s death, Lia develops obsessive behaviors, including anorexia and cutting. She feels isolated from everyone and like she is unlikely to get help. As her self-destructive behaviors grow worse, Lia is haunted more insistently by Cassie’s spirit. While some critics voiced worries that Wintergirls could encourage teens to engage in disordered eating, the 2009 novel largely received praise for its gritty exploration of self-harm, guilt, and hope.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (2017). John Green’s novel Turtles All the Way Down tells the story of Aza, a 16-year-old girl struggling with loss, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These manifest in spiraling thoughts, safety rituals, health anxiety, and feelings of depression and isolation. Anyone who has suffered from similar mental health struggles will identify with Aza as she finds a new idea to fixate on: finding the missing billionaire Russell Pickett, the father of her classmate Davis, with who she begins a relationship. All the while, she fears that her mental health struggles will make it impossible for her to have a normal life.


If you’d like to read more by Stephen Bitsoli, here’s the link to his website – Sunshine Behavioral Health

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