Why you should care
Because these novels engage with a challenging topic through stories that both entertain and enlighten.
Long gone are the days when Catcher in the Rye was a reader’s first exposure to mental illness in fiction — and good riddance (full disclosure: this writer hated the book as a teenager and isn’t much more fond of it as an adult). With an increased expectation of accuracy in fiction, novels that explore mental illness are encouraging conversation and openness about mental health — and in a reality where the traditional asylum has long since fallen to the wayside, but stigma remains. These stories provide both an understanding for the unaware and a relatable experience for those in the know who may be suffering themselves.
A Head Full of Ghosts
by Paul Tremblay
Many readers like having the shit scared out of them, often when it includes some mysterious otherworldliness such as spirits, demons and poltergeists. In his ninth novel, the Colorado-based Tremblay makes a dual foray into the occult and mental illness, and the strain the situation takes on one family’s dynamic. A Head Full of Ghosts is told through the flashbacks of Merry, the younger sister of 14-year-old Marjorie who suffers from acute schizophrenia — or, as her father believes, demonic possession — which leads to a chain of events that ends in chaos and tragedy.
The Shock of the Fall
by Nathan Filer
The first novel by British-born Filer, who trained as a psychiatric nurse and worked in mental health research at the University of Bristol, is a dark tale of a child growing up with the weight of death on his shoulders. Following the death of his older brother, who had Down syndrome, Matt experiences symptoms of schizophrenia. His situation is compounded by his mother’s depression, along with the uneasy haze of residual guilt. The story takes a sharp turn when Matt stops showing up for his biweekly treatment shots and starts talking to his dead brother.
Freaks Like Us
by Susan Vaught
Neuropsychologist Vaught has written 16 young adult novels that have touched on weighty topics like suicide, weight and health, and teenage relationships. In Freaks Like Us, the schizophrenic protagonist, Jason, hears a lot of voices, like “Whiner” and “Bastard,” that fill his head with self-doubt. But he finds solace in two friends, Drip and Sunshine, who also suffer from mental illness (ADHD and selective muteness, respectively) and the trio form their own support group. When Sunshine goes missing, her friends are dragged into the investigation as suspects, and the tale takes a mysterious turn.
Hyperbole and a Half
by Allie Brosh
Part memoir and part graphic novel, Hyperbole and a Half is a collection of illustrations and posts from Brosh’s popular blog of the same title. Among the author’s tales of eating an entire birthday cake as a child and discovering her dog might be mentally challenged, there are stories about her own struggle with mental illness, told in off-beat but poignant narratives and visuals. In one comic, Brosh uses the analogy of being surrounded by dead fish to describe her depression as a problem for which people eagerly offer solutions — but they’re solutions for a different problem altogether. In 2012, after a period of absence from her blog, Brosh resurfaced with a reddit post about her whereabouts and her struggle with depression, sparking an online discussion there and in the comments section of her blog.