What I look for in mental illness representation and books that talk about mental health, across genres, is mostly something that makes sense emotionally. Which is why I’m including novels that talk about mental illness/mental health that use the paranormal or sci-fantasy technology to make their point. If anything, those kinds of stories resonate with me more than a lot of “accurate” representation – many novels that try to be realistic while also having the main character still be likable (as most contemporaries do) feel toned down to me. If we have to get into paranormal or sci-fantasy territory to explain how terrifying it can get for the person experiencing it, how it sometimes seems to warp reality, then why not.
This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow
This is one of the most underrated contemporary novels I’ve ever read, and if you trust what I say about contemporaries (which isn’t much, I know, this is mostly an SFF blog), please read this?
It’s a story about three girls who were once friends as they reconnect through music, and it talks about recovery in all its three PoVs:
- Hannah is recovering from alcoholism;
- Jules was in a toxic relationship and mentally is still dealing with the aftermath of that;
- The boy Dia loved died unexpectedly, and this book talks about how grief can lead to magical thinking (as in, if I get close to someone else they’ll die too)
These are all heavy themes, but the way this book is written, the way it focuses on recovery more than anything, makes it… if not exactly a light read, certainly not a sad or difficult one either.
The Dark Beneath the Ice by Amelinda Bérubé
This novel’s representation of anxiety was so good that it made realize things about my own. It’s a story about the consequences of avoidance as a coping mechanism, and if you’re thinking, but it looks like a paranormal horror novel – it is. It uses a horror metaphor to explain what happens when one does that, and it’s not pretty, and I love that this book doesn’t try to to hide it.
It’s the only novel I’ve read so far in which not only the main character starts taking medication (antipsychotics, outside of a contemporary issue novel? yes), but also talks about having side effects while still presenting it in a mostly positive way.
For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig
For a Muse of Fire would be a pretty typical rebel-against-evil-people-in-power YA fantasy, but it would be wrong to describe anything with a queer Southeast Asian heroine with bipolar disorder as “typical”, wouldn’t it? And anyway, of all the novels with this kind of plot I’ve read, this is one of the best.
Heidi Heilig said that she chose to write this novel “the way being bipolar feels like“, and the way this is done both through the pacing and the mixed media format is amazing. Also, I always like to read about mentally ill people in YA who are heroes even though they have very little support system in their own world, because I didn’t have one when I was the main characters’ age either.
Final Draft by Riley Redgate
I don’t know if there is (and which is) an English equivalent of this, but Italian literature classes spend a lot of time on Giacomo Leopardi. There’s very little I hated as much as the time we spent on Giacomo Leopardi, because it meant having to spend a lot of time listening to teachers say very insensitive things about suicide and talk about how suffering makes your art so much better. It’s not the poet’s fault, and it’s not the only time the “tormented artist” myth was presented as pure truth, but still, so many bad memories.
Reading a novel like Final Draft, a novel dedicated specifically to shatter that stereotype, a novel whose entire message is that the pursuit of art isn’t worth your mental health, was very refreshing.
Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee
One thing that somewhat annoys me about fantasy and science fiction as it is today is how a lot of it makes characters go through unimaginably horrible things without addressing the mental toll these kinds of things would have on a person.
And if it does, it usually does so in a very specific way – the main character is ok at the beginning, goes through bad things and is in a bad mental place, but once the obstacles are gone, recovery is… if not instant, at least quick and certain.
I was surprised when I realized that the Machineries of Empire series wasn’t that kind of story. Most characters these novels follow are dealing with mental illnesses and the consequences of trauma (and in some cases of abuse) – and they usually are already at the beginning of the novel, and more often than not still are by the end of it. A mentally ill character’s arc doesn’t have to be “gets ill then gets cured”; there’s so much more about a person that their illness or trauma.
(Also, most of them aren’t good people, and it might sound odd, but I actually really appreciate that.)
These are novels I didn’t like as much as a whole, but in which I appreciated how some mental health-related topics were portrayed/discussed, so I want to talk about them.
- Paris Adrift by E.J. Swift: this was the first time I ever saw panic attacks represented in a fantasy book, and this novel will always hold a special place in my heart because of that. Also, the more you read it the more it feels like a fever dream, which is exactly what I mean when I say that I look for “what makes sense emotionally” in books featuring topics related to mental health. A warped perception of reality, and it makes you feel that!
- The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton: plot-wise, this book was a mess. However, the simple fact that it featured a main character who had to drop out of high school because of depression but is now recovering and isn’t shamed for any of this made me like it far more than Walton’s previous book. I did go very close to having to repeat a year in high school because of anxiety [I don’t know how it is in other countries but in Italy there’s a mandatory oral exam at the end of high school and if you don’t pass it it’s likely that you’ll have to repeat the last year], so it means a lot to me to see this.
- Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall: this is an m/f romance/issue book, which is really not my thing, but I have to say that the mental illness representation in it – agoraphobia and OCD – was amazing. We rarely see main characters who are so deeply affected, we almost only see ones that manage to go to school and have friends, and… that’s not everyone’s experience and I’m glad this book exists.
What are your favorite books that talk about mental health?