Mental Health in Literature: 8 Reading Recommendations


Literature allows both authors and their readers to explore mental health culture in a variety of different ways. This post highlights a few favorites from my reading list this summer, some which have had a profound impact on my passion for therapy. Additionally, most of these would be great books for anyone to read, not just for those specializing in mental health, so if you’re looking for something, I hope these recommendations help out! These selections are from a range of genres, varying from young adult fiction, educational nonfiction, textbook excerpts, autobiographies, to Broadway musical screenplays. (As a side note, I’m currently looking for more books to read, so if you have anything you think I’d like, please message me). 


#1. Turtles All The Way Down, by John Green (YA Fiction)

This is an incredible work of young adult fiction featuring a high school protagonist, Aza, who lives with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Through her first person perspective, Green illustrates how the thought processes and “spiraling” obsessive patterns can often play out for individuals who live with this mental health issue. It also follows a mystery surrounding the missing father of Aza’s childhood friend, and touches on topics of family, emotional health and relationships.


#2. The Center Cannot Hold, by Elyn R. Saks (Autobiography)

This was one of my favorite books this year, and the author, Dr. Saks, is actually a professor at UCSD and USC!! This book is an autobiography about Saks’ life growing up with psychosis, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and struggling with mental health throughout college, graduate school, law school, and beyond. This book was an incredibly illuminating read and is a very honest account of how mental illness can influence the course of one’s life. Dr. Saks to date is an incredibly inspiring psychiatrist and lawyer, who has also founded an institution on mental health law.


#3. Love’s Executioner, by Irvin Yalom (Nonfiction) 

Dr. Yalom is a very successful writer along with being an established psychiatrist in the counseling field. He has written a variety of books, ranging from textbooks, nonfiction memoirs, guides for incoming therapists, and fictional novels centered around therapy and counseling. Love’s Executioner is one of my favorite works from him, because it features real stories of patients that he has worked with throughout his career as a psychiatrist, and not only makes for an interesting read, but is also very educational and has taught me a lot about therapeutic techniques.book4.jpg

#4. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (YA Fiction) 

In the field of social work, social justice is a large component towards providing equal and fair treatment to individuals in need, especially in under-served communities and with underrepresented populations. The Hate U Give is a beautifully written young adult novel about an African American protagonist who witnesses a police shooting of her childhood friend, and consequently becomes drawn to activism after experiencing further racial inequalities and challenges following the incident. It’s a heavy read for young adult fiction because of such important topics, but for that, it’s well done and extremely moving.


#5. Dear Evan Hansen, music by Steven Levensen (Musical)

This Tony-award winning musical is actually one of the first to feature mental health issues on the Broadway stage! This stage musical addresses heavy topics including social anxiety, depression, teen suicide, and grief, and is played in a high school setting. I haven’t seen this musical live in New York City (original cast starring Ben Platt!), but I read the screenplay, which is available online and in bookstores, while simultaneously listening to the musical numbers as I read. It’s a wonderful dramatization and a great conversation starter, especially for a musical addressing such hard topics to become big in the world of theater.


#6. The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida (Autobiography/Interviews)

This is a very unique book written by a thirteen-year-old boy in Japan living with autism. The chapters are broken down by questions he was asked regarding his diagnosis, his experience, and his feelings, which he all answers to the best of his ability in a very honest and straightforward manner – it can make for a heartbreakingly sweet read, as well as an informational resource for providers working in the field of special needs. It’s also a very simple and easy-to-read book, as well as a quick read. This book has been translated to English, and has an introduction written by a father to a child with autism.


#7. Why Zebra Don’t Have Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky
(Textbook Excerpts/Research Nonfiction) 

As a very scientific approach to stress, this book explores why animals are supposedly less stressed out than human beings because they spend less time brooding over the past or planning ahead for the future, and essentially spend more time in the present. Though this is a pretty heavy read with a lot of scientific descriptions and discussed research results, it provides an illuminating insight on our developed tendencies to stress ourselves out, and suggestions towards how we can work on better self-care and change our habits.


#8. The Gift of Therapy, by Irvin Yalom (Nonfiction)

This open letter for incoming therapists has been a great resource for me working towards a career in the profession – Yalom (author of Love’s Executioner) writes small tidbits of advice for counseling students in a variety of specializations, including social work, marriage/family therapists, counselors, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. It’s a good reference to have, and great to just open up and read a few chapters every once in a while.


It was tough picking favorites, but these are a wide range of great reads that each explore a different perspective in the large world of mental and emotional health. I hope these are good recommendations if you’ve been looking for something to read this summer –  and again, please do send suggestions my way if there’s a book you think I’ll like! Stay tuned for more Character Clinic content coming soon, and have a great start to August.

Cheers, Juliann

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© Post material by Juliann Li and The Character Clinic, 2018.
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