As you may know, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It's the perfect time to educate yourself on mental health. One of my favorite things about reading is it gives you the opportunity to experience perspectives different from your own.
What better way to break down stigmas and stereotypes surrounding mental health than to read about characters with mental illnesses? Sadly, it can still be challenging to find books that deal with the topic of mental health authentically. As always, representation is vital so here are six of my favorite books that do a wonderful job of discussing mental health.
1. Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand
Finley is sent to live with her grandparents, whom she's never met, for the summer while her parents discuss divorce. Finley, 11, has anxiety and depression, but she doesn't understand it. She escapes from her life to Everwood. She has notebooks upon notebooks filled with stories of Everwood, a fantasy kingdom, with characters and plots that often parallel her life.
Once Finley begins exploring the woods behind her grandparents' house, she realizes that Everwood may not be so fictional afterall. She goes on adventures in the woods with her cousins and they meet a family of boys they're ordered to stay away from. As they continue to uncover the mysteries lying in the woods, Finley realizes why her father has kept her away from his family for so long.
I think this book does a beautiful job of showing how challenging it can be to live with a mental illness, especially as a tween or teen. I absolutely loved this book and so did one of my friends who read it. As a teen with anxiety who loves to write, I definitely empathize with Finley. I enjoyed the complexity of the plot and how everything tied together at the end.
2. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Melinda became a pariah before she even walked in the doors of Merryweather High by calling the police at a party over the summer. Her former best friend, Rachel, deserts her, leaving her alone. Her only escapes are art class and an old janitor's closet. She is depressed and hardly speaks to anyone. Through her art, she begins to come to terms with what really happened to her at that party. She was raped and her assaulter also attends Merryweather High. Through the course of the school year, she finds the strength to speak up about what happened to her.
This book is a very powerful read. There is also a graphic novel version of Speak if you would prefer to read it. I've read both the graphic novel and the traditional novel and I really liked both of them. I read the graphic novel in a day and although there are sections that are hard to read, I think they're also the most important to read.
3. Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
Lily wears a red dress and waves at a cute boy right before eighth grade. Lily is a transgender girl. The boy, Norbert, who Lily nicknames Dunkin, and her become friends. However, Lily is only out to her family and best friend and tells Dunkin that she only wore the dress as a dare. Dunkin has his own secret— his bipolar disorder.
At school, bullies harass Lily and call her disgusting slurs. These same bullies befriend Dunkin. Hoping to become popular, Dunkin doesn't stop them and instead joins the basketball team with them. In order to have more energy so he can get better at basketball, Dunkin stops taking his medication. While Lily struggles with her father not accepting her identity, Dunkin works to balance basketball, his new friends, and hiding his bipolar disorder.
Lily and Dunkin is so sweet and you'll fall in love with the main characters from the first page. Told in split-perspective, you get to really empathize with Lily and Dunkin. My favorite character was Lily and this book not only taught me what it's like living with bipolar disorder, but I also learned a lot about the challenges many transgender individuals face.
4. Saving Red by Sonya Sones
While volunteering at Santa Monica's annual homeless count, Molly, 14, meets a homeless girl a few years older than her named Red. With the help of Cristo, a cute boy she met on a ferris wheel, Molly is determined to get Red back to her family by Christmas.
This becomes significantly more challenging once Molly finds out her and Red have something in common— neither of them want to talk about their past. Molly becomes even more worried about Red after she finds out she has schizophrenia and manic disorder. While Molly works to reunite Red with her family for the holidays, Red helps her come to terms with her own past.
I absolutely loved reading this book. It's written in verse, which feels a bit awkward at first, but you get used to it quickly. Besides Red's mental illnesses, Saving Red also includes characters with anxiety and PTSD. I read this entire book in the course of one weekend and I don't regret it. I loved that the characters were more than just their mental illnesses. They had personalities and lives just like everyone else. Cristo and Molly's romance is super cute and I loved reading about Molly and Red's friendship.
5. A Danger to Herself and Others by Alyssa Sheinmel
After being accused of hurting her best friend at a summer program, Hannah is institutionalized. She knows this is all a misunderstanding. After all, she's innocent and once the doctors realize she isn't crazy, she'll be free to go home. She's very intelligent and decides to use her powers of persuasion to get the staff on her side. In between meetings with her therapist, she befriends her roommate Lucy, who has an eating disorder. As the story progresses, we learn more about Hannah and what really happened during the summer program.
In the Author's Note, Alyssa Sheinmel tells us, "This book is a work of fiction and is not meant to educate readers about mental illness or institutionalization." Although she goes on to note that Hannah's treatment in a real mental hospital may have been slightly different, it's obvious she's done her research. This book offers a realistic look at mental illness and the stigma surrounding it. Told through the perspective of an unreliable narrator, this book was a very interesting read that I would definitely recommend.
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
We meet Charlie through a series of letters to an unknown recipient. He enters high school without his best friend, Michael, who committed suicide last spring. He befriends a senior named Patrick and Sam, Patrick's stepsister, who he quickly begins crushing on. They introduce him to their group of friends and they bond over mixtapes, parties, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. He also becomes close with his English teacher, who gives him books to read and write reports on outside of class.
Although he is still crushed over the loss of both Michael and his Aunt Helen, who died when he was seven, Charlie finds happiness through his friends. Throughout the course of a school year, Charlie matures and learns about sex, drugs, friendship, and what it means to "feel infinite".
This book is a never ending source of quotes and you'll fall in love with Charlie as the book progresses. The Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn't shy away from serious topics and one of the book's main themes is abuse. This book isn't very long, but I'm very glad I got the chance to read it.
I hope you've found some new books to read this month. The stigma surrounding mental illness still persists and it's more important now than ever before to educate ourselves on the topic of mental health.