Book Box: Seven Powerful Mental Health Books
One summer evening in Mumbai, we sat around a table. We were discussing an extremely personal story that a writer in our group had just written – a draft that would become a successful memoir on mental health.
Hearing this story gave us the courage to talk about our own struggles: growing up with a bipolar father, raising an anxious child. Because that’s what mental health books do – they help you understand yourself and others. They tell you that you are not alone. They offer techniques for dealing with anxiety, anger, sadness and grief.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and the perfect time to recommend these seven powerful mental health books. Also to introduce you to Bijal Shah, the practitioner of an atypical profession: bibliotherapy or the prescription of books as therapy. But first, the books.
Must Read: Book 1 of 7
The talented Lori Gottlieb starts as a screenwriter then becomes a doctor at Stanford Medical School and finally chooses to become a therapist. In this memoir, she talks about her patients and also weaves in her mental health journey. Maybe you should talk to someone is ironic and self-deprecating and raises questions we all relate to.
A young boy grows up with a manic-depressive mother in this brilliantly written, real-life novel. The boy, his older sister, and their stoic father look after the mother, a flamboyant, flamboyant figure who talks about everything from sex to her own madness. I loved Em and the Big Hoom for the power of his ideas, for his intelligent conversations and for his black humour. A book that accompanies this story of a mentally ill parent is educated by Tara Westover, also totally recommended.
To really plumb the dark depths of the human condition, go straight to the Russian classics. The most vivid of them is Crime and Punishment. For no one despairs so brilliantly as Dostoyevsky. Consider for example this description in student Raskolnikov’s novel – it details an anxiety we know all too well.
“for some time he had been in an irritable overworked state, verging on hypochondria. He had become so completely absorbed in himself and isolated from his fellow men that he dreaded meeting, not only his landlady, but anyone.”
Must Read: Book 4 of 7
The glass bell is the only novel written by poet Sylvia Plath. The story mirrors Plath’s life as the protagonist’s descent into mental illness parallels Plath’s own experience. It’s dark and disturbing and raises questions about the connection between genius and madness. For more, read the intriguing A mad dream of Turing machines.
Must Read: Book 5 of 7
Fifteen-year-old Christopher has autism and he shows us our world through his eyes, with its claustrophobic crowds and mad shouting. The curious incident of the dog in the night by Mark Haddon is simple but unusual. Its phenomenal success has since spawned a whole genre of psychological intrigue with quirky narrators, like the best-selling The Silent Patient.
Must Read: Book 6 of 7
Eleanor Oliphant is not like the others. She can’t tell white lies, she has fewer social needs than the average human being. If you met a woman like her in real life, you would probably hate her. But after reading this feel-good novel told from her perspective, you begin to understand and understand that Eleanor isn’t so weird after all. In reality, Eleanor Oliphant is perfectly fine. Read also Woman convenience store and A man called Ove.
It’s a book that I’ve seen develop chapter by chapter, because the author and I were part of the same group of writers. What I like the most are the three threads that intertwine in this book. The first is Aparna Piramal Raje’s own story – from an Oxford University and Harvard Business School alumnus and mother of two boys to be brought down by bipolar disorder. The second is research and resources in the book. The third is the poems that are sprinkled throughout the text. All three come together to make Chemical Khichdi an absorbing, inspiring and very practical book.
From books on therapy to books as therapy, here’s London bibliotherapist Bijal Shah recommending books as therapy. Edited excerpts from our conversation:
1. What is bibliotherapy?
The earliest origins of book therapy or bibliotherapy can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who built libraries containing both entertainment and educational books. Aristotle’s literature was considered medicine for the soul. At the beginning of the 19th century, doctors prescribed books to relieve suffering. Soldiers who participated in the First World War read to manage post-war trauma. In the late 1960s, poetry therapy emerged as a form of bibliotherapy
2. How did you get into book therapy?
In 2017, while on maternity leave with my firstborn, I built a database of books and wrote several essays on literature and therapy. By then I had completed a part-time degree in Psychodynamic Counseling and Psychotherapy. And then, when my husband was offered an international assignment in San Francisco, I quit my job at Deutsche Bank in London and started Book Therapy, a bibliotherapy and book curation service.
3. How can reading help with anxiety and depression?
Reading exercises the mind, deepens empathy and forces us to slow down, thereby managing anxiety and depression. From the perspective of bibliotherapy, reading offers us an excellent coping mechanism: the right book for a specific situation can reassure us, calm us and offer us healing. Reading also helps us stay present on the page and the words, which, like mindfulness, promote feelings of calm, clarity and peace – especially when we are navigating anxiety, depression or a stressful situation. .
4. Any advice for people who are too anxious to read?
1. Practice mindful reading: Reading is a form of meditation, an invitation to completely lose your mind and soul in the narrative and story, as you connect with the text and the author. Allow yourself to relax and indulge in the words on the page.
2. Keep a book journal: As you read, you may find that literature triggers unexpected feelings or thoughts. Use these literary prompts to reflect and process and maybe even take them to a therapist or coach.
3. Find a reading partner: Reading together or discussing literature with a partner, friend, or book club buddy reestablishes that bond while also getting us to engage in reading—both things that nurture our mental well-being.
5. What is a good way to choose the right book for book therapy?
I would say ask yourself what do you need?
Do you need connection, do you need to read about someone else going through the same thing as you? do you need escape like a break in the present? Or you may need to fantasize so that you can get away from the difficult feelings you are going through now for a short time – so that when you return you will have had a good mental break and can think more clearly.
Observe what you need most at the time and choose a book that meets that, such as a protagonist whose story is similar to yours or fantasy fiction or an author you tend to connect with or enjoying the work.
6. Finally, what are your 5 favorite mental health books?
The body keeps the score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, Where to draw the line by Anne Katherine – a very useful book on setting boundaries. The Beast: A Journey Through Depression by Tracy Thompson. Ambiguous loss by Pauline Boss. On the subject of Shame, two of my favorite books are I thought it was just me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame by Brené Brown and Heal the shame that binds you by John Bradshaw.
That’s all the reading for now. Next week, I’m traveling to New York to visit a very special independent bookstore and look at five fun books that capture the New York vibe.
Until then, happy reading!
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week she brings you specially selected books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading requests or a suggestion or two on how to improve this books newsletter, email him at [email protected]
Opinions expressed are personal
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