The April topic for the Monthly Recommendations Goodreads group (which you can check out here) is mental health rep, and I have to admit it’s a topic that I had a hard time putting together a list for.
I know there are areas of my reading that I need to improve on, which is why I made it one of my goals this year to significantly increase the number of books I’m reading by authors of color. But mental health is definitely one of those areas that needs work in the future.
So my list is admittedly shorter and less diverse than I would like it to be. Some of this is also because I chose to focus my list on books where mental health or mental illness is a major theme and not more of a side issue, but it’s mostly my own failure as a reader to pick up books that overtly deal with those issues, as well as my inability to recognize it when I’m reading it because of my own privilege.
I’ve been doing a lot of research to find more books I’m interested in that depict mental health and mental illness and disabilities. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath come to mind, plus Jenica from Firewhiskey Reader reminded me that I need to read The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli when I mentioned my struggle with this list. Plus lots more! And I’m really excited to see what my other Goodreads group members suggest!
But enough for this introduction. On to the books!
Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai
I actually think mental health comes up a lot in romance novels, though the problem you have to be careful of is the idea that a relationship can fix mental illnesses. Alisha Rai takes that issue head on in Hate to Want You, the first book in her Forbidden Hearts series, making sure to insert a scene in her book that addresses exactly that and makes it clear that the relationship is not a cure.
This is a second chance romance that deals with feuding families and depression, and it’s super angsty and steamy. It’s been an incredibly popular romance novel this past year, and I highly recommend checking it out for numerous reasons, but one of the things I’ve heard praised the most is Rai’s depiction of the heroine’s depression and how she focuses on taking care of herself and coping when things become too much. Dealing with her depression is very much a process that takes constant work, and it’s not something that the hero runs away from. In fact, I remember one scene where one of her coping mechanisms turned pretty steamy…This is definitely a great read for mental health rep as well as contemporary romance in general.
A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that one of my favorite books is perfect for this list. I love A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas, not least because of the romantic relationship, but equally important to watching Feyre and Rhys fall in love is seeing Feyre struggle with PTSD and depression following the events in the first book. I think part of what makes this book so appealing is that you really see Feyre coping with the events of the first book and dealing with the emotional impact of it. And through it all, Rhys still loves her and is there for her. They both say numerous times throughout the series that they’re broken and still healing and that their love for each other doesn’t make everything magically better, which I think is really important to acknowledge, but it definitely helps them both with the healing process. And there’s something major to be said for how vulnerable they make themselves to each other, but that they still love each other and come out of the series with such a strong relationship. I think that’s a lot of what makes this series, and this book in particular, so beloved.
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
I can’t really take any credit for thinking of including Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins on my list, because it was totally Jenica’s idea when I was bemoaning how short my list was for this post. And once she mentioned it, I couldn’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner. The fact that Katniss had PTSD and was increasingly unstable as Panem collapsed was one of the things I loved most about this series, because it didn’t shy away from the fact that Katniss wasn’t just going to go home and have everything be the same after surviving the Hunger Games. It really shows the impact that war can have beyond just death and destruction, and while I know a lot of people wanted Katniss to get better and have a happily ever after, I really liked that the series showed that it was something she continued to deal with and work on. This is probably one of my earliest and most memorable experiences reading books with mental health rep, and I think it’s still a great recommendation.
Grant by Ron Chernow
Grant by Ron Chernow isn’t going to be a book for everyone, because it’s an absolutely massive biography at 960 pages. But it’s one that I highly recommend to learn more about perhaps one of the most underrated presidents in American history, as well as to learn more about Reconstruction, a time period that isn’t widely taught in the United States but really should be. I think it’s also a really important read from a mental health perspective, too, because Grant was an alcoholic, and this book deals frankly with that as a mental illness, and not simply a lack of self control, as it was widely viewed at the time. I definitely learned more about alcoholism while reading this book, and it made Grants accomplishments as a general and a president even more impressive as he struggled to deal with something that wasn’t considered a disease at the time and that he had few resources to draw on for help with.
There are a few other books I considered putting on this list, but these are the ones I’m most comfortable recommending at this point. This is definitely a topic that I need to educate myself more on before I feel comfortable speaking to it more.
Also, if you’re interested in autism rep specifically, Cait at Paper Fury just put together a great post titled How to Tell if a Book Has Good Autism Rep. (Ft. Lists Because We Love That).
Please drop any links for other good lists of recommendations in the comments, as well as your own mental health rep recs if you have them! I’m hoping that if I revisit this topic in a year, I’ll have a much more robust list put together.