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6 Brilliant Books About Mental Illness

By 49thShelf
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From Emily Austin, whose debut novel is EVERYONE IN THIS ROOM WILL SOMEDAY BE DEAD: The amazing thing about novels is that in addition to entertaining us, they often hold up a mirror to society and ourselves and help us empathize and relate. Reading THE BELL JAR in my early twenties helped me realize large components of myself, parts I mistook for personality traits, were actually symptoms of mental illness. Though I have had depression since I was in grade six, I did not recognize that until reading THE BELL JAR It is important to see characters who represent what it is like to be mentally ill, which is part of why my debut novel, EVERYONE IN THIS ROOM WILL SOMEDAY BE DEAD, centres around a character who is morbidly anxious and depressed. My hope for her story is that readers who have experienced similar struggles might identify with her, and that readers who have not might better understand what being depressed and anxious is like. One in three Canadians will personally experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. Almost half of those who suffer have never seen a doctor about it. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death from adolescence to middle age. Though improvements have been made, there remains significant stigma around mental illness. Because of this stigma, people are less likely to discuss mental health, to recognize they need help, to seek help, and to treat it like they would other serious health issues. The six books below shine light on experiences of being mentally ill, and by doing so contribute to destigmatizing mental illness and to fostering a more honest, compassionate, and healthy society.
That Time I Loved You
Why it's on the list ...
This is a collection of linked stories set in a small suburban neighbourhood in Scarborough in the 1970s. The characters are immigrants from around the world who have come to Canada hoping to find happiness. It is a funny, heartbreaking, and sympathetic collection of stories that addresses topics like loneliness, suicide, and community.
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The Break
Why it's on the list ...
This is a story about a violent crime told from multiple perspectives. It centres around four generations of Metis women and their families, who are trying to navigate around the violent and racist traumatic realities of their lives. It addresses topics like addiction, and domestic and sexual abuse. It is a devastating and important book that sheds light on intergenerational trauma, racism, and the connection this has on Indigenous peoples lives and mental health.
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Dancing in the Dark


I bind my wounds with paper; with this blue notebook, a garish shade not eggshell nor sky nor water, but a colour too blunt and striking. There are spaces on the cover labelled, in black print, Name ____________; and below that, Subject ____________. The date is August 17. I asked the ­nurse.

In tiny print in the bottom left-­hand corner it says the book is printed with recycled paper. And that, I think, is good. I have always approved of that sort of thing, when I have thought about ­it.

Inside, the notebook is lined thinly with grey, a pink stripe marking a margin at the side of each page, three holes cut into each margin, round and precise, not at all like the holes, irregular and unspaced, made by a knife in a body. There is a comforting neatness about this book, so one feels compelled either to leave it blank or to write in it carefully, perfectly, and with a certain pain in the ­perfection.

I appreciate things that are careful, complete, and perfect. This day, for instance. I am fortunate to have a place beside the big window, so that I can look out without ­obstruction.

Here, of course, there is an unchanging temperature, an untouchability in the atmosphere. So I cannot tell if outside it is uncomfortably hot, but I think not; I think it is a day in which heat soaks the body like a liniment and ­heals.

Yesterday it rained. But since I am safe inside here, that too was fine, and I watched the greyness falling ­mist-­like. The result of the rain is that in today’s sunshine there is an extra greenness, an ­almost-­too-­shrill brightness. It is all quite clearly defined; there are perceptible boundaries between the green of the grass and the ­tree-­trunk-­grey and the deep green leaves, no blending to ­confuse.

On such a day the mind should also be ­distinct.

It is the details with which I may occupy myself, nothing larger than this room, this body. I shall attempt neatness and keep removed from ­passion.

The bed is narrow, sheeted with white, coarse. The bed I used to have was wide, the sheets were blue and in the winter covered by the deep down quilt made far back in my mother’s family, in aging rags of blue, soft yellow checkered red and white. That bed did not have buttons to be pushed that raise shiny steel bars at the sides, an extra bulk that spoils the simplicity of the lines. And it was softer too, while this one is hard and tightly ­wrapped.

There are two such beds in this room. One is mine, and I am careful to stay in it, or near it, never stray too far, for although it may be strange and ugly, it is also ­mine.

I can reach out and touch it from where I sit in the easy chair, the ­blue-­and-­purple-­patterned chair that fills the space between the narrow bed and the wide, ­heavy-­glass window. I sit with my legs crossed at the ankles, back pressed firmly against the chair, blue notebook opened squarely on my lap, my knees touching the base of the window ledge while still in my line of vision on the other side is the glimpse of unwrinkled ­sheet-­whiteness. Three feet, perhaps, between bed and ­window.

It is precisely the right amount of space. This much I can manage, most ­days.

At the foot of my bed, a narrow pathway distant, is a dresser, a double one that extends the width of my bed and beyond into the other half of the room, a double dresser with mirror, drawers of underwear shared, split into mine and other. Over the centre of my half is a cheap framed landscape, autumn trees with unreal red and gold leaves, a ­too-­blue stream running past ­steel-­grey rocks. Not the sort of painting I would choose, and yet it is oddly right for this ­room.

Overhead there is a fluorescent light, switched on at dusk and on dull days. Attached to the headboard of the bed is a reading lamp, which must not be used after a certain hour. When it gets dark, ­cream-­coloured curtains are drawn across the windows and there is no more to ­see.

It is a puzzling ­half-­room, clumsily warm, but not personal. Some things I like about it though: that it is arranged in straight lines; that it is always in order; that I am responsible for none of ­it.

The days are slow, events are rare. No one makes me move. The farthest I go from my narrow ­half-­room is to the dining area three times a day; the second farthest when I again pass the other bed, the other half of the double dresser, the second and ­near-­identical landscape on the wall, the closet, to go to the washroom. There are two of us in this room, with a washroom connecting with two others in the next room. To be sure of privacy in the bathroom, it is necessary to lock two doors: the one from Room 201, which is mine, and the one from Room 203, which is next door. Sometimes when I sit on the toilet and do not care to move, for it is white and bright in there, a door handle may move and there may be a muffled remark, but I pay no attention. To move, even if I wanted to, is an effort of will, and I am somewhat short of will these ­days.

And too, consumed as I am by the trivialities of my own existence, a piece of lint on my housecoat, the glint of a straight pin on the carpet by my chair – and how would such a thing get there if not through me, and I have no use for straight pins, a puzzle to occupy some moments – how should I then have attention for those others? I am careful not to see them. I want to know nothing about them. I take special care in my own ­half-­room never to glance beyond my bed, never to acknowledge the mutters and rustlings from the other bed, never to meet eyes. If it were possible, I would roll my eyes inward and stare only at ­myself.

When I am to be dressed, someone does it for me. They get me up and seat me; sometimes even brush my teeth. I would have my food, too, spooned into me except that that would make a contact, it would be difficult to avoid the eyes and too much trouble, and so I feed myself. I wait, though, until the meat has been cut for me. Otherwise I would have to take it in my hands to gnaw, for I cannot imagine myself carving it ­up.

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Why it's on the list ...
Edna Cormick has murdered her husband and is now living in a psychiatric hospital. For two decades, Edna devoted herself to her husband. She learns however that despite her commitment, her husband has been having an affair. The story is told from Edna’s perspective, and while Edna is not a likeable character—her story provides an interesting insight into the mind of a woman suffering from both an obsessive compulsive psychotic break, and from being a woman who has no agency and has been solely defined by her relationship to her husband.
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All My Puny Sorrows
Why it's on the list ...
This is a story about two sisters, Yolandi and Elfrieda, from a conservative Mennonite community. Yolandi is the broke, divorced narrator and her sister Elfrieda is a wealthy, world-renowned pianist. Despite her successes, it is Elfrieda who suffers from depression and suicidal ideation. The story explores topics of sisterhood, mental illness, and grief, and does so while balancing weighty sorrow with sharp humour.
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In My Own Moccasins
Why it's on the list ...
This is a memoir by Helen Knott, who is a smart and resilient Dane Zaa, Nehiyaw, and mixed Euro-descent woman living in Fort St. John, British Columbia. This story shares Helen’s experiences with intergenerational trauma and abuse. It addresses topics like PTSD, addiction, sexual assault, and healing. It is a beautifully written memoir.
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Little Fish

Little Fish

also available: Audiobook
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Why it's on the list ...
Wendy Reimer is a 30-year-old trans woman who feels stagnant. After her Oma dies, Wendy receives a phone call from a distant family friend who tells her a secret: Wendy's opa — a devout Mennonite farmer — might have been transgender too. The story explores a period of discontent in Wendy’s life and addresses topics like alcoholism and suicide. It is a hopeful, lonely, and sympathetic story about a woman who definitely deserves your love.
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Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead

A Novel

This hilarious and profound debut for fans of Mostly Dead Things and Goodbye, Vitamin, follows a morbidly anxious young woman—“the kindhearted heroine we all need right now” (Courtney Maum, New York Times bestselling author)—who stumbles into a job as a receptionist at a Catholic church and becomes obsessed with her predecessor’s mysterious death.

Gilda, a twenty-something, atheist, animal-loving lesbian, cannot stop ruminating about death. Desperate for relief from her panicky mind an …

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