The best books to reveal the truth about mental illness

Who am I?

In addition to my lived experience as someone who has struggled with mental health and addiction since adolescence, I'm passionate about social justice issues related to mental illness and substance use. In June 2021, I completed a post-graduate program in Mental Health & Addictions. Throughout my studies I was able to gain a deeper understanding of how my own struggles developed and what they have come to mean to me from both a personal and clinical perspective. Now, I endeavor to pursue future writing projects in various genres that illuminate mental health issues as a relevant and timely topic of interest. I also hope to work with disenfranchised populations while pursuing my creative writing.   

I wrote...

The Death of Small Creatures

By Trisha Cull,

Book cover of The Death of Small Creatures

What is my book about?

In her lyrical memoir The Death of Small Creatures, Trisha Cull lays bare her struggles with bulimia, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse. Interspersing snatches of conversations, letters, blog entries, and clinical notes with intimate poetic narrative, Cull evokes an accessible experience of mental illness.

In The Death of Small Creatures, Cull strives to cope with her hopelessness. She finds comfort in the company of her two pet rabbits until one of them dies due to her lethargy. She numbs herself with alcohol. She validates her self-worth by seeking the love of men and three relationships significantly impact her life. She tries drugs and after two hospitalizations, she undergoes electroconvulsive therapy. This immersive memoir explores love in all its facets and plunges the reader headlong into the experience of mental illness.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

By William Styron,

Book cover of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

Why this book?

I read Darkness Visible in the midst of my worst depressive episode around 2008. I remember relating completely to his vivid descriptions of highly abstract psychological sensations, impending doom, for example, in which one feels askew to her or his surroundings, like death is imminent but you don’t know from where or how. Styron describes depression as being not unlike physical pain, and that moment in which you simply and utterly succumb to a kind of unprecedented existential suffering, if you will. It is a moment of agony, tender, fierce and absolute. Without a hint of self-indulgence, his rendering of depression is immaculate, a reckoning of the self, a crucible.


By Glennon Doyle,

Book cover of Untamed

Why this book?

Doyle describes her history with addiction and bulimia, though she does so from a place of stability. For example, she reflects on the trauma of her past, but her trauma is couched in her presently transformed existence. I related to this powerful story as it is not unlike my own journey—a story of convalescence, a burning desire to transcend the perils of mental illness and addiction. Doyle uncovers how both the personal, familial, and social constraints of her childhood, and indeed of her adulthood, had historically shaped and constrained her choices. In both Doyle’s story and my own, the reader will sense the same desire to be “untamed,” a desire to overcome one’s limitations and to strive toward contentment and self-agency.

Madness: A Bipolar Life

By Marya Hornbacher,

Book cover of Madness: A Bipolar Life

Why this book?

Hornbacher details her experience of living with bipolar disorder—the psychological escapades, the unimaginable highs, and devastating lows. These transcendent highs and crippling lows are mirrored in the strange delights and perils of the physical world. She is the life of parties, dressed provocatively in silky red dresses and matching ruby lipstick. But she is also capable of breaking ties with reality, hopping in a car with a boyfriend and travelling across the state for no reason in particular, an adventure in which the pleasure of the high becomes too much, too dangerous to be reckoned with. 

I too recall waking up at 2 am, writing for 18 hours straight, (without a water or pee break), and creating a beautiful essay in one draft which was later published. I once spent two days and nights in a blinding fury of elation that was simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. I too remember in my most desperate moments how the white concrete sidewalk squares seemed to wobble as I walked upon them; the world slipping out from under my feet. And the harrowing horrible daylight, too much for my senses.  Hornbacher is a genius, a voice of her generation. I aspire to be in such astonishing company in the literary world.  

Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America

By Elizabeth Wurtzel,

Book cover of Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America

Why this book?

The late Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation is brilliantly constructed, intelligent, gritty, direct, even sardonic at times. She was a no-bullshit writer, a forerunner in the field of literary nonfiction, one of the first writers of her generation to tell the truth about mental illness and bulldoze the taboo of stigma related to this otherwise unpalatable topic.  

In this memoir, she takes us by the hand and pulls us tenderly at times, and forcefully at other times, into her intimate world of mental illness. Even as a little girl away at camp she struggles with depression and contemplations of life and death; she attempts suicide for the first time at camp. Later, as an award-winning Harvard student, we see her deteriorate further into madness, until at last she is prescribed Prozac, and things turn around. While the meds help her, she also had foresight into the dangers of pharmaceutical companies, and their self-serving desire to pathologize human experience into various mental crises.

Wurtzel succumbed to breast cancer on January 7th, 2020.

Rest in Peace, Elizabeth. You changed my life. You rocked my world.

Girl, Interrupted

By Susanna Kaysen,

Book cover of Girl, Interrupted

Why this book?

The prose style in the memoir, Girl, Interrupted, is clean, concise, and unembellished. The spare writing leaves no room for self-pity, yet still tells a vivid story of mental unraveling and convalescence concurrently. Kaysen meets a cast of vulnerable characters during her nearly year-long commitment in a psychiatric hospital. They form unlikely friendships, and we get to know all of their various neuroses in a stifling environment that is at once a cage and a path to self-discovery and health. 

I was reminded of my own two commitments to psychiatric hospitals, how strange and austere the world became in those weeks, how time became irrelevant with the breakfast, lunch and dinner announcements, medication time, nightly bed checks, and the ironic “fresh air breaks,” on the back steps of the ward where I and my own unlikely cast of characters smoked cigarettes and commiserated about our unique predicaments. 

I was reminded in reading Girl, Interrupted that it is possible, even in the midst of mental turmoil, to experience epiphanies of self-understanding.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in mental health, bipolar disorder, and psychiatric hospitals?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about mental health, bipolar disorder, and psychiatric hospitals.

Mental Health Explore 104 books about mental health
Bipolar Disorder Explore 24 books about bipolar disorder
Psychiatric Hospitals Explore 25 books about psychiatric hospitals

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Mists of Avalon, Salvage the Bones, and Awakenings if you like this list.