The best books about psychosis from a schizophrenia diagnosis survivor

The Books I Picked & Why

The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness

By R.D. Laing

Book cover of The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness

Why this book?

Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing is considered a heretic by mainstream mental health – and today it is widely recognized that our mental health system routinely fails to help people. And so Laing’s ideas are now more relevant than ever. Laing’s compassionate approach was to understand psychosis and schizophrenia from the inside, and make the strange, bizarre and frightening world of madness understandable as a reaction to an impossible situation. This book serves as a rich reminder that people labeled “crazy” are humans like you and me – and need listening and care, not forced hospitalization, stultifying tranquilizers, and banishment from society.

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Memories, Dreams, Reflections

By Clara Winston, C.G. Jung, Aniela Jaffe, Richard Winston

Book cover of Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Why this book?

Like William James before him, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was prescient in his caution about reducing human suffering to the chemical interactions of the brain. This “medical materialism” and “psychology without the psyche” sees people as mere neurological machines prone to breakdown. Instead, Jung’s enduring ideas view humans as living, growing processes, actively creating symbols and meanings in the push towards greater wholeness and creative expression.

 Jung worked in acute psychiatric wards, and he knew firsthand that the madness of psychosis, mania, and schizophrenia needed to be met with listening and deep curiosity. The mind goes mad to find a way forward when other ways are blocked. Refusing to be part of “normal” society may be a way to go on a kind of soul strike – a desperate change needed, without clear ways to communicate, so the strange symptoms and deteriorations of madness come to the fore. Jung’s autobiography conveys his deep respect for the mysteries of the human mind and the urgent need for deep listening, connection, and patience – not the clinical neuroscience agenda of control and suppression.

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Woman on the Edge of Time

By Marge Piercy

Book cover of Woman on the Edge of Time

Why this book?

Psychiatry has historically – and today – been allied with systems of oppression. Abuse survivors, people pushed to the margins by poverty, women weighed down by male dominance, people of color facing racism, LGBT people, colonized indigenous people – all have had their calls for change met as signs of illness, and all have faced the coercions of institutional mental health care.

Piercy’s science-fiction masterpiece dramatizes the power relations of psychiatry and an oppressive capitalist society in the story of a psychiatric inmate struggling across time travel to find freedom in a distant utopian future. Percy was a revolutionary feminist deeply involved in the social uprisings of the 60s and 70s, and her use of science fiction parable forces us to face how her protagonist’s choices, like ours today, determine what kind of world we want to live in.

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By Loren R. Mosher, Voyce Hendrix Fort

Book cover of Soteria

Why this book?

What would happen if instead of throwing people into jail-like mental wards and hammering them with tranquilizing drugs, we instead welcomed them into home-like settings and spent time listening and caring, patiently giving them time and space to explore the emotional roots of their crisis? Psychiatrist Loren Mosher did just that in the Soteria House research project in the 1970s and 80s, and the results were clear: people do better without medications and with listening and caring in a safe environment instead.

Mosher was the first chief of the Center for Studies of Schizophrenia of the National Institutes of Mental Health but you’ve probably never heard of him – his innovative project proved that psychosis can be healed more effectively without medication and outside of  hospitals, but came at a time when biological and pharmaceutical solutions – and the profits they generate – came to dominate psychiatry, so he was pushed out. This intimate account of life at Soteria gives us a glimpse of what a truly caring response to psychosis, schizophrenia, and manic crisis would look like. And it gives us a blueprint for changing our current mental health system – if we can gather a movement to achieve it.

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Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity

By Daniel B. Smith

Book cover of Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Hearing Voices and the Borders of Sanity

Why this book?

Hearing voices is considered a symptom of schizophrenia and can quickly lead to hospital lockup, medication, and being shunned by society as “mentally ill.” In this fascinating account, Smith reveals the truth about this experience we call “madness” – hearing voices is actually a normal human experience across history and culture. Poets, religious visionaries, people spending time alone or grieving – even Freud, Gandhi, actor Anthony Hopkins, singer Lady Gaga -- all heard voices, and anyone under the right kind of stress can hear voices. The problem only arises when people hear distressing voices and have nowhere to go for help other than being treated as ill by a doctor.

Psychiatry made the catastrophic mistake of calling homosexuality a mental disease, and for many decades LGBT people were abducted, confined in hospitals, drugged, tortured, and killed for the mental crime of being different. Today people who hear voices are also oppressed, and even though voices that cause them mental pain may come from traumatic experiences that need compassion and healing, they are told they have schizophrenia and will never recover. Smith’s book is a rallying cry for patients’ activism such as the Hearing Voice Movement, where voice-hearers are coming together in self-help groups to find peer support and demand a new understanding of this unreasonably feared and pathologized human experience.

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