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.

The books I picked & why

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

By Andrew Solomon,

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

Why 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!


Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

By Robert Kolker,

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

Why 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. 


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

By Ron Powers,

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

Why 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.


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

By Robert Whitaker,

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

Why 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.


Singermann

By Myron Brinig,

Book cover of Singermann

Why 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.


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