Reading about Mental Health Issues

In the last month or two, I seem to have gravitated towards books about mental health issues, both fiction and nonfiction. This seems fitting, since May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In nonfiction, I read David Chang’s memoir Eat a Peach, Jenny Lawson’s fantastic Broken (In the Best Possible Way), and I’m currently reading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score

Eat a Peach is Chang’s memoir about growing up in the U.S. as a Korean-American and becoming a successful chef.  He’s opened restaurants all over the world, and produced cooking shows and a magazine.  He also struggles with manic-depression, writing about his challenges finding a therapist, going on and off medication, dealing with suicidal thoughts, and managing his anger.  He discusses how his mental illness actually fuels his success, pushing him to work harder and do more, but it takes a serious toll on his health. Chang is not the nicest guy, as he portrays himself, and he isn’t someone I’d want to work for. But then the world of chefs is a very different one from what I’m used to, which may be why I’m so interested in reading chef memoirs (and also because I just like food). I appreciated the way Chang shares this very personal side of himself, and I imagine it will help others experiencing similar problems.

I love Jenny Lawson and will happily read anything she writes. Her books just keep getting better. Broken is full of Lawson’s hilarious anecdotes and dialogue with her husband and daughter.  But it’s more introspective than the previous two. Lawson writes very frankly (and sometimes beautifully) about depression and anxiety.  It’s a collection of essays more than a linear narrative. One chapter that particularly struck me was written as a letter to Lawson’s health insurance company.  I was also struck by two chapters that compare Lawson’s mental condition to weather patterns like storms and unexpected snow — constantly changing, and beautiful in its own way.  She also writes about the way depression tells the mind lies, in that it puts thoughts into your head that are destructive and not true. 

In a lot of ways, I couldn’t be more different from Lawson. I don’t suffer from the physical challenges she’s experienced. I also don’t have her humor and creativity.  I did relate to her chapter about introverts.  Pre-COVID, she talks about sometimes wishing for a “voluntary house arrest” to take time away from people, and I definitely can understand that. She’s incredibly relatable, mainly because of the way she laughs at herself and all the difficulties she faces.

Finally, I’m reading The Body Keeps the Score, which is about the long-term neurological impacts of trauma. The focus is on how the brain and the body react to trauma. While this is different from depression and anxiety, many of the topics discussed in this book are similar. For people who have experienced trauma, the brain can send the wrong signals, so people find themselves overreacting to benign situations, reliving past events over and over again, and finding they seek out harmful stimuli just to feel “alive”. 

I’ve read about half of this book and I’m reading it slowly because the subject matter is overwhelming at times. One thing I find interesting is that even if you haven’t been through some form of severe trauma, it’s still enlightening to read about the different ways the brain and body interact. I found I identified with many of the issues the author raised, even if I haven’t had the kinds of experiences discussed in this book.

It’s nice to see so many books discussing mental health issues in a way that doesn’t minimize or stigmatize. Anyone have other recommendations about good books on mental health issues?

  17 comments for “Reading about Mental Health Issues

  1. May 18, 2021 at 8:49 pm

    I’m glad you liked Jenny Lawson’s book! I’ve read her previous two and can’t wait to read her newest.

    • May 19, 2021 at 9:32 am

      This was the first one I listened to as an audiobook – it was even better to hear her tell her stories.

  2. May 19, 2021 at 2:44 am

    I absolutely adore books that deal with mental health issues! I just made a pot like this as well!

  3. May 19, 2021 at 6:00 am

    I’m so glad you’re reading The Body Keeps the Score! I had to read it slowly as well. So much to digest but it’s so important. The misunderstanding and mistreatment of traumatized individuals causes the harm to be amplified and extended thrughout all of society, so it’s a subject I think everyone needs to know about, even if you say “I haven’t been traumatized.” For sure, teachers, social workers, and medical professionals must be better educated in this field.

    I have two other recent reads to recommend. Hidden Valley Road, about a family’s journey with schizophrenia, and What Happened To You? by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey – conversations about the effects of trauma and how we can develop more effective ways of dealing with it, very much in line with the van der Kolk approach. I’ve not read Jenny Lawson next but you make me interested to check her out.

    • May 19, 2021 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks for the recommendations Lory, I’ve heard good things about Hidden Valley Road. Jenny Lawson is amazing though probably not for everyone – she brings so much humor to very difficult issues. I completely agree with your comments about The Body Keeps the Score; I’m finding it very relevant to some of my own work, and I’ve started recommending it to my colleagues in the education field. There’s so much we need to understand about how children react to trauma and its long term effects. And I’m finding it helps me think about my own reactions and how they might have been influenced by past events.

  4. Karen.Bernard
    May 19, 2021 at 9:34 am

    I was just ordering some new books and I almost picked up Jenny Lawson’s. ☺

    • May 19, 2021 at 2:38 pm

      Hey Karen! I think you’d love Jenny Lawson. I almost think you should start with Furiously Happy, which is her last book. They aren’t linear, but you learn more about her and her family that way.

  5. May 19, 2021 at 4:00 pm

    I am putting these on my to-read list, thanks. I enjoyed the book “Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction,” by David Sheff, related to mental health.

    • May 20, 2021 at 7:39 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation Audrey! Addiction is such a difficult (but important) topic.

  6. May 20, 2021 at 9:46 am

    Loved this post! A book I read on the topic of mental health over the winter was – Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. May draws you in to her journey with working through her depression in a realistic, relatable way. May learns to find beauty in wintering while she works to become healthy. A couple of take-aways for me are: 1) cold water bathing in the ocean – preferably – to shock your system; and 2) pausing to allow the beauty of nature in.

    • May 20, 2021 at 7:38 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, Roberta! This sounds very worth reading, and I particularly like books that involve nature.

  7. May 20, 2021 at 4:42 pm

    The Body Keeps the Score is meant to be amazing, but I think it’s a bit close to home for me. Maybe a read for less panicky times! I really enjoyed Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness and of course Oliver Sacks’ books although they’re more about brain injury or brain-wiring conditions rather than mental health as such.

    • May 20, 2021 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks for the recommendations! I really want to read one of Oliver Sacks’ books. I thought about whether the books I read were more about mental health, mental illness, or trauma but decided it’s all related. The Brain That Changes Itself is another one on brain-wiring.

  8. May 23, 2021 at 8:49 pm

    Lawson’s book sounds beautiful. I will definitely have to check that out!

  9. July 17, 2021 at 3:47 am

    Reading the body keeps the score as well.. Agree with you on that one it’s not the kind of book you can just breeze through!!

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