You might think calling your book “an atlas of depression” is a bad case of exaggeration, but with his huge tome on depression Solomon earns it. He looks at depression from every imaginable angle, and ties it all together with stories of his own severe episodes over the years. Meticulously organized and eloquently written, this book is full of research– and Solomon’s hard-earned opinions on that research. It’s not an easy read because of its length and its intricate style, but if you want to advance your understanding of depression with just one book, this is your best bet. It’s at the top of this list because it’s just about as good as a book about mental health can get. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Perhaps depression can best be described as emotional pain that forces itself on us against our will, and then breaks free of its externals. Depression is not just a lot of pain; but too much pain can compost itself into depression. Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance. It is tumbleweed distress that thrives on thin air, growing despite its detachment from the nourishing earth. It can be described only in metaphor and allegory.
As far as there’s a canon of books about mental health, Kay Redfield Jamison’s “memoir of moods and madness” has been near the top for over twenty years. It was one of the first books blending experiential and scientific takes on bipolar disorder (a term she actually dislikes because the idea of two poles draws too strong a distinction when things are much more murky). Jamison has a unique dual perspective on the condition: she has a severe case herself, and she’s a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. People like to call this book brutally honest, and it is. Jamison is interested in the in-between moods that weren’t really discussed in clinical literature (and still isn’t, except by a few researchers interested in what they call mixed states). This line is characteristic of Jamison’s unflinching self-awareness, which so many people have found relatable: “I had been simply treating water, settling on surviving and avoiding pain rather than being actively involved in seeking out life.”
The title of Matt Haig’s memoir/guidebook on severe depression (and suicidality) makes things sound pretty drastic– and in a way they are. Haig, who advocates constantly for mental health online, has made it through some tough times, and tells us about them in a relatable way. This book has the opposite goal of Solomon’s, preferring practical advice to encyclopedic knowledge. But don’t let its small size fool you, because this tightly written book is full of wisdom you can start applying to your own experience right away. It’s a great one to keep around in case things get tough again for you or somebody you know. The lists in this book are particularly useful. Here’s part of one:
Here are things I wish someone had told me at the time:
1. You are on another planet. No-one understands what you are going through. But actually, they do. You don’t think they do because the only reference point is yourself. You have never felt this way before, and the shock of the descent is traumatising you, but others have been here. You are in a dark, dark land with a population of millions.
2. Things aren’t going to get worse. You want to kill yourself. That is as low as it gets. There is only upwards from here.
3. You hate yourself. That is because you are sensitive. Pretty much every human could find a reason to hate themselves if they thought about it as much as you did. We’re all total bastards, us humans, but also totally wonderful.
4. So what, you have a label? ‘Depressive.’ Everyone would have a label if they asked the right professional.
5. That feeling you have, that everything is going to get worse, that is just a symptom.
6. Minds have their own weather systems. You are in a hurricane. Hurricanes run out of energy eventually. Hold on.
7. Ignore stigma. Every illness had stigma once. Stigma is what happens when ignorance meets realities that need an open mind.
8. Nothing lasts forever. This pain won’t last. The pain tells you it will last. Pain lies. Ignore it.
This is the first work of fiction on our list, and as a warning it’s also the first in which suicide plays a central role– this makes it tougher to recommend, but the way Haslett’s novel explores suicide’s effects on everyone close to the victim makes the tragic event much more than a cheap plot point exploiting a difficult topic. Still, it’s a heavy book, and one that might inspire a good bit of sadness. A family contends with their father’s depression throughout their childhood, and deals with its legacy once he’s gone. But it reads quickly, has a ton of beautiful moments, and does a good job complicating our ideas about mental health. If we only read non-fiction we can start to slip into very one-sided views of “the way things are.” Luckily we’ve got fiction to remind us of how varied, and how nuanced, actual manifestations of mental illness can be. Here are a couple memorable quotations from the book:
“It struck me then, for the first time, how unethical anxiety is, how it voids the reality of other people by conscripting them as palliatives for your own fear.”
“Against the monster, I’ve always wanted meaning. Not for its own sake, because in the usual course of things, who needs the self-consciousness of it? Let meaning be immanent, noted in passing, if at all. But that won’t do when the monster has its funnel driven into the back of your head and is sucking the light coming through your eyes straight out of you into the mouth of oblivion. So like a cripple I long for what others don’t notice they have: ordinary meaning.”
Scott Stossel’s 2014 book got a lot of buzz, partly because it’s good and partly because the editor of a major magazine, The Atlantic. Stossel describes the intense anxiety he’s felt throughout his life, and all the things he’s tried to feel better. You can tell that he’s been interested in learning about mental health for a while (and that he’s a journalist) because he seamlessly weaves research, interviews, and other people’s stories into his own tale. He has a lot of interesting stories to tell– like the time he got to live on Cape Cod with the extended Kennedy family while researching one of his books, and flooded their toilet after a bout of “gastric distress” while Arnold Schwarzenegger was visiting. Here’s a lengthy excerpt.
Also a journalist, David Adam developed his first obsessions about HIV/AIDS as a college student in the 1990s. It’s been fairly common for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder to fixate on this possibility since the start of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. For Adam, the thoughts took over completely. He tells us that everyone working at the National AIDS Helpline knew his voice because he called so many times each day; it didn’t matter that he wrote for Nature, a major science journal, and knew that his risk wasn’t nearly high enough to merit all this anxiety. All that mattered– and this might be familiar to those with OCD– was that there was a risk. Like these other books, this isn’t a simple memoir; it’s full of useful research and helpful information on what might help other people get better too.
What mental health books have you learned from?
Next time around, we’re particularly interested in highlighting books from writers of color and writers who don’t identify as men. Everybody’s mental health matters, and sometimes these stories aren’t prioritized. If you have a moment to leave us a reading recommendation, we’d love to hear from you.