The best books about families struggling with mental health

Who am I?

I’d been writing for forty years before I could write about the biggest story in my life. My 25 non-fiction books about the American West—landscape, Native peoples, conservation—are a joy to research, photograph, and create. But I had unfinished emotional business: my mentally ill brother who left home when I was six, never to return. After everyone in my family was gone, it was finally safe. I began to recreate my brother’s life, reveling in research. I know how to do that. Opening myself emotionally to the heart of my family story took far longer. Empathy is a choice, and I’ve made my choice.

I wrote...

The Mike File: A Story of Grief and Hope

By Stephen Trimble,

Book cover of The Mike File: A Story of Grief and Hope

What is my book about?

I had my line. “I had an older brother who left home when I was six. Mike lived with three diagnoses: retardation, schizophrenia, epilepsy. He died years ago.” Then, after my parents died, I dared to open the incendiary envelope, The Mike File, recording my brother’s heartrending place in our family.

Mike’s commitment to the Colorado State Hospital in 1957, at fourteen, his deinstitutionalization ten years later, and his death in a rathole of a boarding house in 1976 parallel our tragic societal failures. You know people like Mike. Millions of families cope with such heartbreak. We can do better, and I close with my imagined vision of how we could have done right by Mike—an alternative effective version of mental healthcare in America.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Why did I love this book?

Far From the Tree is an astonishing book. Andrew Solomon is simply a master of combining research with interviews—the very challenge I take on in my book. As he looks at the diverse identities of people who fall “far from the tree,” I find myself both undone by the compassion of loving parents and endlessly moved by these individuals we so casually dismiss as The Other. No other book summarizes such a vast amount of research—almost encyclopedically—but personalizes every disability, every exceptionality, every person, with beautifully detailed stories. One last tip: Do not feel obligated to read the more than 700 pages in sequence. Do not feel guilty. Give yourself permission to read the chapters that most appeal to you!

By Andrew Solomon,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Far from the Tree as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Books for a Better Life Award, and one of The New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of 2012, this masterpiece by the National Book Award–winning author of The Noonday Demon features stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children, but also find profound meaning in doing so—“a brave, beautiful book that will expand your humanity” (People).

Solomon’s startling proposition in Far from the Tree is that being exceptional is at the core of the human condition—that difference is what unites us. He writes about…

Book cover of Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

Why did I love this book?

In many ways, my book is a prologue to Robert Kolker’s extraordinary book. When Mike left our home, he moved to the Colorado State Hospital, in 1957, just a few years before the Galvin brothers began to rotate through the same wards. My mother dealt with the guilt and shame, stigma and chaos of one child with schizophrenia. The Galvins had ten boys and two girls, and six of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Unimaginable. I feel especially close to their story because I went to college in Colorado Springs. I rode my bike near the Galvin home on Hidden Valley Road. Even the brain research ending Kolker’s book on a note of hope happens in Denver at the University of Colorado. Like mine, this is a Colorado story. 

By Robert Kolker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hidden Valley Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB PICK • ONE OF GQ's TOP 50 BOOKS OF LITERARY JOURNALISM IN THE 21st CENTURY • The heartrending story of a midcentury American family with twelve children, six of them diagnosed with schizophrenia, that became science's great hope in the quest to understand the disease.

"Reads like a medical detective journey and sheds light on a topic so many of us face: mental illness." —Oprah Winfrey

Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. After World War II, Don's work with the Air Force brought them to Colorado,…

Book cover of No One Cares about Crazy People: My Family and the Heartbreak of Mental Illness in America

Why did I love this book?

Ron and Honoree Powers’ story is far more searing than my family’s story, but their experience surely resonated with me. There’s a whole genre of books by parents who take us along with them on their journeys with mentally ill children (see Pete Earley’s Crazy, as well), weaving in the history of our treatment of the mentally ill. Powers is the best I’ve read, and he does such a sweeping survey of that history, I decided not to cover the same territory in my book—but to concentrate on Mike’s story. The Powers have two sons, both diagnosed with schizophrenia. Kevin doesn’t make it, succumbing to suicide. Dean manages to live a relatively stable life. The “grief and hope” of my subtitle are both here, fiercely told.

By Ron Powers,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked No One Cares about Crazy People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Extraordinary and courageous . . . No doubt if everyone were to read this book, the world would change."---New York Times Book Review

New York Times-bestselling author Ron Powers' critically acclaimed narrative of the social history of mental illness in America paired with the deeply personal story of his two sons' battles with schizophrenia.

From the centuries of torture of "lunatiks" at Bedlam Asylum to the infamous eugenics era to the follies of the anti-psychiatry movement to the current landscape in which too many families struggle alone to manage afflicted love ones, Powers limns our fears and myths about mental…

Book cover of Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill

Why did I love this book?

Robert Whitaker’s books inform my work. Both Mad in America and Anatomy of an Epidemic provided crucial policy background as I searched for my brother's personhood. Whitaker’s deep research and ferocious insistence that we rethink psychiatric care guided me into the world of mental illness, the history of treatment, and the controversy over forcing medication on unwilling people. I sympathize with Whitaker and the people who believe anti-psychotics make things worse. But I also meet many with diagnoses who believe in the mantra, “take your meds.” Best practices cannot be one-size (pill)-fits all. I end my own book by imagining the best possible world for mental health treatment—guided both by Whitaker and his most vehement critic, E. Fuller Torrey.

By Robert Whitaker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mad in America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Schizophrenics in the United States currently fare worse than patients in the world's poorest countries. In Mad in America, medical journalist Robert Whitaker argues that modern treatments for the severely mentally ill are just old medicine in new bottles, and that we as a society are deeply deluded about their efficacy. The widespread use of lobotomies in the 1920s and 1930s gave way in the 1950s to electroshock and a wave of new drugs. In what is perhaps Whitaker's most damning revelation, Mad in America examines how drug companies in the 1980s and 1990s skewed their studies to prove that…


By Myron Brinig,

Book cover of Singermann

Why did I love this book?

When I began my book, I wanted to know who my mother was at 22, when she left a brief disaster of a first marriage with an infant—my brother, Mike. Mom grew up in Montana, embedded in immigrant Jewish life. My great-uncle, Myron Brinig, wrote about that life and our family in Singermann, his first book (now, alas, an obscure classic available mostly in libraries). In early drafts of my book, I included far too much family history, with Myron as my guide. I loved the detail; my early readers did not. So my published book stays close to the core emotional story. And yet Singermann opens a window not just on our family but others with complicated immigration stories, dark secrets, and intergenerational mental illness.

By Myron Brinig,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Singermann as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

hardback no jacket

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