Six Books That Might Change How You Think About Mental Illness

In 2021, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, two of the world’s most highly lauded athletes, walked away from major competitions to protect their mental health. In a field that elevates “toughness” and “grit,” both drew major attention for candidly prioritizing wellness above achievement. Their decisions, and the headlines about them, reflected a new cultural willingness—in sports, in schools, and in the workplace—to be more genuine about mental well-being, seemingly replacing stigma with openness.

But such saturated awareness of mental health doesn’t automatically translate into a robust cultural understanding of mental illness or how it’s managed. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s so-called bible, might give a name to and describe a condition, but it won’t always define how a person might relate to their symptoms, and treating these ailments remains complex. Psychiatry has been helpful for many, but it’s also a complicated field, and medication is rarely an immediate, or permanent, cure; plenty of mental illnesses can be chronic or cyclical, even though many Americans prefer easy narratives that move briskly from sickness to healing. But specific, honest writing can help dislodge these oversimplifications and illuminate instead the scores of stories that don’t necessarily unfurl as expected. Each of the six books below provides a unique perspective on the subject, sitting with both the ugly and painful as well as the beautiful and hopeful.

Madness in Civilization
Princeton University Press

Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, From the Bible to Freud, From the Madhouse to Modern Medicine, by Andrew Scull

What we now call mental illness has existed since time immemorial, and for much of history was simply termed madness—which Scull defines as “massive and lasting disturbances of reason, intellect and emotions.” In what he deems “a task of surpassing chutzpah,” he sets out to cover more than 2,000 years and several continents, and creates a gripping history of this age-old, widespread experience. He immediately establishes that our contemporary understanding of the phenomenon is relatively recent; the word psychiatry emerged only in 19th-century Germany and was originally rejected by the very field it came to define. But madness can be found in ancient religious texts, the earliest surviving compilations of medicinal knowledge, and many of the oldest works of art still known to us. Scull surfaces what little we know about its treatment through these historical artifacts, and demonstrates that the mad have always been a part of civilization—even though they have long been portrayed as a threat to, or the opposite of, it. This book is both a daunting scholarly feat and a deeply engaging read that challenges us to reconsider the authority of our modern perspective.

The Collected Schizophrenias

The Collected Schizophrenias, by Esmé Weijun Wang

Wang, a Stanford-educated best-selling author, does not quite fit the common stereotype of a person with schizoaffective disorder. But her life has been shaped by her experience with the “offspring of manic depression and schizophrenia,” as she calls it—a serious mental illness, and perhaps one of the most misrepresented. The psychotic episodes, disorganized thinking, delusions, and mood swings commonly associated with it are frequently portrayed as frightening and dangerous, in both contemporary and historical sources. In 13 probing, melodic essays, Wang examines her own experiences as well as the history of schizophrenia and its related conditions. She doesn’t create an account of healing; there is no cure for schizoaffective disorders. And she’s honest about the discomfort she feels at being associated with the diagnosis, while sensitively fighting against her impulse to disaffiliate herself from it: Those who share her diagnosis are “my people in ways that those who have never experienced psychosis can’t understand, and to shun them is to shun a large part of myself,” she writes. Yet she demonstrates that with the right resources and support, a significant condition can be part of a complex and abundant life.

While You Were Out

While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence, by Meg Kissinger

Kissinger grew up as one of eight children in an outwardly conventional mid-century Irish Catholic family. But inside her home, things were not idyllic: Her mother would disappear for weeks at a time for no apparent reason; her father would fly into explosive rages; her siblings were actively depressed, and some wanted to end their lives. But Kissinger didn’t examine her youth deeply until she was well into adulthood, when, after years of covering mental health for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she decided to use her journalistic skills to give voice to what her family had kept hidden. She reveals that her father had bipolar disorder and her mother suffered from lifelong anxiety, that two of her siblings died by suicide, and that she and her living siblings were traumatized to varying degrees, responding with suicidal ideation, depression, or avoidance. This isn’t to say that love wasn’t present among the Kissingers, even when they were growing up—it was, and in abundance. But her family’s struggles demonstrate that the stigma surrounding mental illnesses can turn deadly. By excavating them, Kissinger paints a singular portrait of her family’s pain and the culture of silence that exacerbated it.

Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing, by Jen Soriano

At 25 years old, Soriano was seriously contemplating suicide. Living with chronic pain since childhood had contributed to depression, anxiety, and symptoms of as-yet-undiagnosed complex PTSD. But Soriano didn’t die. They found solace and care among like-minded Filipino American activists in San Francisco and, in the following years, began to see a relationship between their own pain, their mental-health issues, and their family history. Soriano’s loving yet neglectful parents were both Filipino immigrants, and as the author draws on psychological and sociological research from Native American, Jewish, and Filipino communities, they realize that their family’s past suffering has serious consequences for their own brain and body in the present. Alternating experimental and straightforward essays investigate Soriano’s relationship not only to their parents but to the Philippines as a whole. Tracing the history of the islands’ colonization by the Spanish and later the United States, as well as that of Filipino resistance, Soriano finds metaphors for their own pain—and a model for their own resilience. Ultimately, Nervous examines the varied factors that can create physical and psychic pain, and finds a way to coexist with it.

The Lives They Left Behind
Bellevue Literary Press

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny

In 1995, hundreds of suitcases and trunks were discovered in the attic of the recently closed Willard State Psychiatric Hospital in upstate New York. The facility had held more than 50,000 people during its 126 years of operation, and the items abandoned in the attic—belonging mostly to long-dead patients—represented only a fraction of the hospital’s population. But the authors vividly animate life inside Willard by choosing the owners of several trunks to be the focus of their stark, haunting book on institutionalization in the first half of the 20th century. These patients ranged in race, class, age, and gender, but each was kept at the hospital for years, most with relatively little cause. The authors write movingly about Lawrence Marek, an immigrant from Galicia who lived at Willard and worked as an unpaid gravedigger for decades until his death in 1968; Rodrigo Lagon, an immigrant and an activist for the cause of an independent Philippines who was committed by his employer in 1917 and died at Willard in 1981, having never secured his freedom; and Ethel Smalls, a survivor of domestic violence who fell into a depression and whose landlady turned her over to the authorities in 1930—she also died at Willard, decades later. The authors demonstrate how the facility, and other mid-century institutions, rarely provided actual care for patients, who were merely warehoused, their psychologies and desires largely ignored.

The cover of Quite Mad
The Ohio State University Press

Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Montgomery’s memoir explores the complexities of having, and taking medication for, mental illness while also being critical of the psychiatric and pharmacological status quo in America. Having been diagnosed with anxiety, OCD, and PTSD over the course of her life, she’s familiar with the mindset that mental struggles are a failure of willpower—which remains an influential narrative even though the rates of psychiatric drug prescriptions are higher in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries. This attitude was present in her own family: Although her father thought that she should take medicine for her anxiety, which was bad enough that she’d throw up before teaching classes—and although he took antidepressants himself—he nevertheless didn’t believe that mental illnesses were real. This cognitive dissonance is ingrained in our culture, Montgomery argues. She wrestles with the medical system that has both helped and harmed people like her, laying out the history of pharmacological research and its relationship to for-profit companies. And she’s frank in describing how frequently the psychiatric system can fail its patients, using her own experience as one example: She underwent a long, painful search for a prescription that would give her relief without debilitating side effects. Her memoir exemplifies a nuanced approach to life with mental illness. She’s realistic about its effects, while also critiquing the rigid, medicalized way it’s often understood.

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