Six Books to help you feel less alone on World Mental Health Day

Six Books to help you feel less alone on World Mental Health Day

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Living with mental illness is shit. It's like being on the world's most despairing, gruelling rollercoaster, and you're strapped in for the ride. Most people with mental illness appear to function normally – your colleague in the next cubicle, or the guy who makes you coffee. They're good at hiding it, and that's because mental illness still carries social stigma. It's hard to drop into a water-cooler conversation that you have anorexia, depression or crippling anxiety.

The real shit: one in six New Zealanders are diagnosed with a mental illness, with women being more at risk. And around 500 New Zealanders die of suicide each year, with the most at risk being young Māori men. A Unicef report found New Zealand's youth suicide rate – teenagers between 15 and 19 – to be the highest out of 41 OECD and EU countries (in other age groups we're in the middle of the pack). 

I know this because I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at eighteen, and now I'm nearly forty. This puts me a high risk age-group for suicide in women, and that worries me. I have family and friends who care for me, and doctors who help me, but I never feel certain that the disease won't take me. It's World Mental Health Day today, so here are books that have helped me understand mental illness and how I can live with it – that have helped me feel less alone. 

The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon

The compassion, humour and vulnerability with which Andrew Solomon writes and speaks about his depression is why his book, The Noonday Demon, is at the top of the list. It contributes to our understanding of mental illness, but also to our understanding of the human condition. 

Solomon is a writer, lecturer and Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, and an activist in LGBT rights. He started writing about depression in 1998 with his New Yorker article 'Anatomy of Melancholy,' which describes his own experience of depression, the wide range of drugs he tried, and the impact of depression on his family and friends. If a book is too much (and this one is a tome), the article is essential reading. If that's too much – and some days it will be – his famous and moving TED talk, 'Depression, the secret we share,' has been translated into 32 languages and viewed over seven million times. I return to him again and again.

An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame

An Angel At My Table is the second book in Janet Frame's three-volume autobiography, and was described by biographer Michael Holroyd as 'one of the greatest autobiographies written this century.' First published in 1984, it won the Non-fiction Prize of the New Zealand Book Awards.

I read An Angel At My Table in my twenties. It follows Frame's life as a student, and her years of incarceration in mental hospitals where she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. A quick Google search will throw up differing opinions about the Frame's exact mental state during these years, but that aside, An Angel At My Table is a story about the archaic mental health system of 1940s New Zealand, Frame's determination to be herself, to write, and to escape a life in which she felt trapped. Frame reminds me to look forward, to value myself, and to hold on to hope.

When Food is Love by Geneen Roth

An oldie but a goodie. And you don't need an eating disorder to get something out of this book (although with over 52% of New Zealand women reporting disordered eating aka dieting, that's a lot of us anyway). It could be retitled 'When Work is Love' or 'When Computer Games are Love' – the book is about how we substitute intimacy and our emotional needs with compulsive behaviour. Roth retells her own painful experiences as well as the candid stories of those she's helped, and examines the crucial issues that surround compulsive behaviour: need for control, dependency on melodrama, and the desire for what is forbidden.

Sure, it has an Oprah-worthy cover, but Roth was one of the founders of the intuitive eating movement and has written multiple books on the subject. It's a genuine help for those with self-destructive patterns and who want to be able to recognise hunger – both physical and emotional. If Roth doesn't sound like your bag, then try Christy Harrison's Food Psych podcast or Jess Zimmerman's searing essay, 'Hunger Makes Me.'

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

The Red Tree is a story about pain, imagination and hope. A small girl wakes to find blackened leaves falling from her bedroom ceiling, threatening to overwhelm her. 'Sometimes you wake up with nothing to look forward to...' She wanders through a world that is complex, puzzling and alienating, and is overtaken by a myriad of feelings.

Written and illustrated by award winning Australian writer Shaun Tan, the book was inspired by the impulse of children and adults alike to describe feelings using metaphor – monsters, storms, a black dog. A friend gave me this book during a truly shitty period in my life, and it was the perfect gift. Tan's incredible pastel images are strange yet familiar, and the nameless girl in every picture stands in for the reader. Solace in a picture book. A reminder that beauty will be waiting for you.

Collaborative and Indigenous Mental Health Therapy by Wiremu NiaNia, Allister Bush and David Epston

When I was a kid my mother worked for the Ministry of Health and specifically on setting up the then-named cervical 'smear' screening service. As part of her work she took my sister and I to a weekend-long hui on a marae. As a Pākehā kid from the 'burbs of Christchurch this was my first real experience of another culture, and the first time I realised that people from other cultures have different needs and values. It's important that this list includes a book that recognises fields outside of Western medicine and psychology, which, as a Pākehā, are the ones I instinctively use, but are not the only ones of value.

One of the most recommended books is Collaborative and Indigenous Mental Health Therapy, which was published in 2016 and written specifically for Māori mental health care. The book examines a collaboration between traditional Māori healing and clinical psychiatry – in this instance Māori healer Wiremu NiaNia and European-New Zealander psychiatrist Allister Bush. The main body of the book recounts the story of one young person and their family's experience of treatment from three or more points of view: those of the psychiatrist, the Māori healer and the young person and their family members. The book shows how a bicultural partnership can provide better mental health care for Māori. Inspiring, and in my opinion, essential for mental health care in New Zealand.

One of the problems facing the field of mental health is its focus on illness rather than on prevention. As American psychologist Martin Seligman, the father of the field of positive psychology, put it in 1999: 'psychology was half-baked.' In the last ten years positive psychology has tried to shift the focus from mental illness to mental resilience, and to support people to live lives of connection and meaning – the things that help prevent the development of mental illness, or the reoccurence and impact of mental illness. 

A whole load of new books, podcasts, essays etc. about positive psychology have come on the market, but I haven't found any as practical as How To Live a Good Life by Jonathan Fields. I first discovered Fields on The Psychology Podcast and then bought his book (Fields also has his own podcast, GLP Radio). One of the problems with mental illness is that the 'environment' part of the 'gene-environment interaction' that triggers mental illness is often the type of environment that doesn't teach us how to care for our needs, connect and contribute. As Seligman states, 'It turns out the skills of happiness...are different from the skills of relieving misery,' so even if the symptoms of mental illness are managed or removed, a person doesn't necessarily flourish. How To Live a Good Life brings together ideas from psychology, literature and philosophy into something practical that shows you how to do just that.  

Feature Image: 'Shadows' by Eric Stensland Smith | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0