It’s time we took the plunge.
We read for all kinds of reasons. Whether we pick up a book to learn something new, see the world through someone else’s eyes or simply escape, reading is an immersive thing.
For this reason, it’s difficult for us to read books about mental health. They draw us into uneasy, restless worlds, peppered with uncomfortable personal experiences and disturbing truths.
But embracing this difficulty is critical. As the second pandemic rolls on and millions struggle with their wellbeing, it’s crucial that — collectively — we start trying to educate ourselves about mental health.
When we see stories about depression and male suicide, for example, how often do we really stop and think? How often do we move past the bare acknowledgement of tragedy to think of the causes — the failed interventions, the under-funded services, the neuro-typical norms, the social problems and the brutal suffering which led to an otherwise preventable death?
These books may not give an easy answer these difficult problems. But what they will give you is an insight. A small, beautiful insight into the lived experience of depression which we urgently need to understand, and address.
1. The Bell Jar
By Silvia Plath.
The long-standing classic on depression, The Bell Jar is a semibiographical look at the life of Esther Greenwood, a young woman who has the world at her feet — and the carpet slowly pulled from underneath them. The writing is deeply poetic, as Plath’s metaphors and object descriptions slice into the soul, dance between tragedy and beauty, and carry the sheer weight of experiencing depression in the ‘prime’ of one’s life.
If depression is invisible, the Bell Jar is a glimpse of that inner angst. That it reads in exactly the way one experiences depression — with monotony, sadness and eerie discomfort — is testament both to the book’s quality and the brutal illness that eventually took Plath’s life.
In a quote:
“Wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
This line, famous among researchers into the depressive experience for the vivid and pointed accuracy of Plath’s introspection, perfectly captures depression’s dogged persistence. It also alludes to the social disconnectedness and guilt that goes hand-in-hand with the experience — an experience which, when Plath was writing in the 1950s, her era’s misunderstandings can only have exacerbated.
2. Speaking of Sadness, by David Karp.
Shooting across to the other side of the spectrum, we find Speaking of Sadness. A non-fiction book which tries to give an all-encompassing picture of depression (often wildly varied in its symptoms), the sociologist David Karp presents findings from a series of interviews with depressed individuals. Together, these fragments — clustered in sections that cover experience, identity, medication, family and friends, and society — come together to give a rich and cohesive picture of depression.
In a quote:
“Depression steals away whoever you are, prevents you from seeing who you might someday be… Only fragments that hinted at greater capacities, greater abilities, greater potentials now gone.”
Though some of the quotes in Speaking of Sadness are best for showing the real, physical manifestations of depression in people’s mood, energy and relationships, this line goes one further. It’s almost horrible to read. How could someone feel this desolate — and further still, how could an illness that we don’t see or understand cause such feelings? Yet here it is: the painful remorse and self-loathing of chronic depression — the felt hopelessness that comes from living under the bell jar for too long.
It’s difficult to hear, but crucial that we do. Because the consequences of turning away from people when they express feelings like these, even if we aren’t professionally equipped to help, are tragic — and enough to make us realise that we have to brush past our own discomfort, to listen and seek support for the deeply depressed.
3. Reasons to Stay Alive
By Matt Haig.
There’s a reason Matt Haig has become a leading voice on the mental health scene: his ability to translate the complexities of anxiety and depression into simple, everyday language. The effect is profound — but in that small, understated way that almost tranquilizes you with calm.
His first book on mental health, Reasons to Stay Alive is a lighthouse for the suffering soul: a part-memoir, part-manual that offers hope, self-understanding and solidarity through the story of Haig’s own recovery from the depths of mental illness.
In a quote:
“All we can do, for the moment, is really all we need to do — listen to ourselves. When we are trying to get better, the only truth that matters is what works for us.”
If you’re wondering what convinced Canongate to tread the ethically risky waters of publishing Reasons to Stay Alive, it’s sentences like this. Humble truths about mental health that — along with the (re)energising moments which lie around every corner and make life worth living — turn the idea of recovery into a real possibility.