The best books about psychiatric hospitals

8 authors have picked their favorite books about psychiatric hospitals and why they recommend each book.

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Alice

By Christina Henry,

Book cover of Alice

I’ve read a lot of Alice in Wonderland books, but this Alice just got deliciously dark, yet it all served a purpose. The world could be vicious at times, but that only made me more and more intrigued about what would happen next. I also like the interesting spin on this classic along with the tight bond between The Mad Hatter and Alice. He was a lot different than we’ve ever seen him and so was Alice, but they were the perfect team in this mad world.


Who am I?

I’ve been intrigued with dark fantasy ever since I was a child, whether it was watching horror movies or fantasy with dark aspects such as Return to Oz or Legend. Growing up, I started reading dark fantasy pretty young, starting with Goosebumps or Scary Stories, and the style stuck with me through my adulthood, so much so that I started writing the genre myself.


I wrote...

The Bone Valley

By Candace Robinson,

Book cover of The Bone Valley

What is my book about?

After the death of his parents, Anton Bereza works hard to provide for his younger siblings. Love has never been in the cards for him, especially after desperation forces Anton to sell himself for coin. And he has no idea that, beneath the city of Kedaf, lies a place called the Bone Valley.

When Anton’s jealous client plots against him, he's cursed to spend eternity in a world where all that remains are broken bones. There, Anton meets Nahli Yan—a spirited woman who once tried to steal from him—and his cards begin to change. As the spark between them ignites, so does their desire to escape. All that stands in their way is the deceitful Queen of the Dead, who is determined to wield her vicious magic to break Anton and Nahli apart. Forever.

Wildthorn

By Jane Eagland,

Book cover of Wildthorn

Set in 19th century England, this novel is aimed at Young Adult readers and is a reminder that a good read is simply good, whatever age bracket it’s aimed at. It resonated with my own teenage struggles to break free of restrictive expectations – even though mine were trifling compared to what the heroine Louisa has to go through! She resists the restrictions of Victorian society and the limited choices available to women, and is locked up in an asylum. It prompted me to read more about the era and discovered the shocking truth of how this really happened to women who stepped out of line…


Who am I?

It’s no surprise to hear I’m drawn to stories featuring outsiders, people who don’t / won’t conform and are fed up trying to force themselves into the narrow roles society offers. Folk who slide under the radar, and never make it into history books (which is all of us, right?). This springs from being an outsider myself, the weird kid who didn’t fit. I’ve chosen novels where the LGBTQ+ characters strive and struggle but do not die tragically. Put simply, they are real people, complete with flaws and strengths. These books are your very own Time Machines: wonderful stories to transport you into the past.


I wrote...

Vixen

By Rosie Garland,

Book cover of Vixen

What is my book about?

Devon, 1349. Seagulls screech across the fields and the wind has a mind to change. New priest Father Thomas arrives in an isolated village. Determined to impress his congregation, he quells fears of the coming pestilence with promises of protection.

For Anne, the priest’s arrival is an opportunity she feels all too ready for. Convinced a grand fate awaits, she moves in as Thomas’s housekeeper, though hopeful of something more. But his home is a place without love or kindness. So when a mysterious young woman appears out of the marshes, Anne takes her in, grateful for the company. But soon the plague strikes, spreading panic. The villagers’ fear turns to anger. Thomas must sacrifice everything to restore their faith, with terrible consequences.

Girl, Interrupted

By Susanna Kaysen,

Book cover of Girl, Interrupted

Susanna Kaysen’s memoir, about the two years she spent confined to a mental institution by a doctor who’d only ever spent 15 minutes with her, is about how society determines who gets to walk free and who cannot. This is an interesting question in itself, but what moved me most was the book’s exploration of relationships between girls: their alliances and feuds, the ways they hurt each other, and the ways they help, holding one another up in the hardest of circumstances. For it’s Kaysen’s fellow patients—including the defiant, unpredictable Lisa, the gentle, self-immolating Polly, and the know-it-all, true blue Georgina—who are the true life of this slight but searing book. 



Who am I?

I was raised in the Midwest by parents who told me I could have whatever kind of life I wanted. I took them at their word, never considering that my gender might come with limitations. It wasn’t until I had my first child and began investigating Paula’s case that the true complexity of womanhood began to dawn on me. I’ve since spent nine years reading and writing and thinking about the experience of being a woman in the modern world. 


I wrote...

What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood

By Katherine Dykstra,

Book cover of What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood

What is my book about?

One summer night in 1970, eighteen-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling left her house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and didn’t return. Four months later, her body was discovered just beyond the mouth of a culvert adjacent to the Cedar River. Her homicide has never been solved.

Paula’s case had been mostly forgotten when, 50 years later, journalist Katherine Dykstra began looking for answers. What begins as an inverstigation into an unsolved homicide, evolves into a reckoning about all the ways women are at risk in the world, simply by being women. Part true crime, part memoir, What Happened to Paula is a timely and important look at gender, autonomy, and the cost of being a woman.

W-3

By Bette Howland,

Book cover of W-3

This is a recent reissue of a book first published in 1974 and long out of print. Bette Howland gives us a vivid and honest account of her time in Ward 3 of a Chicago psychiatric hospital after a serious suicide attempt in her late twenties. I was moved by the moments of communion, camaraderie and even comedy the narrator shares with her fellow patients. Having said that, Ward 3 is a terrible place. The “treatments” are also punishments. The narrator confronts the ward’s alienation with clear, unsentimental detachment. I was absorbed by her struggle to retain an element of dignity in the face of the hospital’s fatally indifferent bureaucracy. 


Who am I?

In addition to being an author, I’m a literature professor and a psychoanalyst; I have worked in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. I have also been a psychiatric patient. I’m fascinated by narrative, and by the way we use language to make sense of our own experiences and to connect with other people.


I wrote...

Couple Found Slain: After a Family Murder

By Mikita Brottman,

Book cover of Couple Found Slain: After a Family Murder

What is my book about?

On February 21, 1992, 22-year-old Brian Bechtold walked into a police station in Port St. Joe, Florida and confessed that he’d shot and killed his parents in their family home in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and ruled “not criminally responsible.”

But after the trial, where do the "criminally insane" go? Brottman reveals Brian's inner life leading up to the murder, as well as his complicated afterlife in a maximum-security psychiatric hospital, where he is neither imprisoned nor free. In the tradition of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Couple Found Slain is an insider’s account of life in the underworld of forensic psych wards in America and the forgotten lives of those held there, often indefinitely.

Faces in the Water

By Janet Frame,

Book cover of Faces in the Water

Faces in the Water was first published in 1961, though it received far less attention and acclaim. The “story,” such as it is, is narrated by Istina Mavet, a shy, introverted young woman (again, based closely on the author) who, like the author, spends ten years in a New Zealand psychiatric hospital. Faces in the Water recounts long, dull years of cruelty and suffering. But don’t let this put you off—Frame’s style is marvelously poetic. The narrative is abstract in places and was at first difficult for me to get into, but once I began to see things from Istina’s perspective, the story came to life, and I found it brutally beautiful. 


Who am I?

In addition to being an author, I’m a literature professor and a psychoanalyst; I have worked in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. I have also been a psychiatric patient. I’m fascinated by narrative, and by the way we use language to make sense of our own experiences and to connect with other people.


I wrote...

Couple Found Slain: After a Family Murder

By Mikita Brottman,

Book cover of Couple Found Slain: After a Family Murder

What is my book about?

On February 21, 1992, 22-year-old Brian Bechtold walked into a police station in Port St. Joe, Florida and confessed that he’d shot and killed his parents in their family home in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and ruled “not criminally responsible.”

But after the trial, where do the "criminally insane" go? Brottman reveals Brian's inner life leading up to the murder, as well as his complicated afterlife in a maximum-security psychiatric hospital, where he is neither imprisoned nor free. In the tradition of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Couple Found Slain is an insider’s account of life in the underworld of forensic psych wards in America and the forgotten lives of those held there, often indefinitely.

My Happy Life

By Lydia Millet,

Book cover of My Happy Life

My book club found this book depressing and shook their heads at my choice. I found it a fascinating account of a life that is meaningful for its owner. The protagonist is a woman dying in an abandoned mental hospital after years of abuse and neglect. And yet, she has a psychological condition that makes her infinitely compassionate towards others: she can only perceive goodwill and love. When she tells the story of her “happy life,” she even feels bad for her rapist. You will love or hate this book. But it will make you think.


Who am I?

As a professor of Classics at the University of Chicago, I’m conditioned to inquire into the meaning of life! But also, I was raised in many different countries and cultures—the UK, Iran, Fiji, Indonesia, Switzerland, the US, plus recent stints studying in China—so I’ve sampled a stewpot of worldviews. The result is that I have a passion for this topic. But I am no truth-telling guru myself (except that I know that dogs are GOOD). I can only speak about the meaning of life for me and hope it will make sense to others. These books have helped me construct that meaning.


I wrote...

The Aeneid

By Virgil, Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer (translator),

Book cover of The Aeneid

What is my book about?

A fresh and faithful translation of Vergil's Aeneid restores the epic's spare language and fast pace and sheds new light on one of the cornerstone narratives of Western culture. "The best version of the Aeneid in modern English: concise, readable and beautiful, but also as accurate and faithful to Vergil's Latin as possible." --James J. O'Hara, George L. Paddison Professor of Latin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

By Ken Kesey,

Book cover of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Yikes! Kesey wrote this the year I was born and published it a few years later, and its scenes haunt me still. Need a lesson in character development? This novel has it all: the wretched head nurse of the mental institution, Nurse Ratched, the stuttering Billy Bibbit (such a cruel name!), the “Chief,” who narrates and holds secrets, and among many others, our villain, Randle McMurphy, who inspired me to cheer for his acts of defiance while I cringed from the consequences. 

This novel about authority, control, brutal manipulation, and railing against it all will challenge all notions of a happy ending. It’ll stick with you, for sure. As a bonus, the 1975 film adaptation with Jack Nicholson is as memorable as the novel.


Who am I?

I’ve always been a vivid dreamer, so when a book makes me feel like I’m “there,” I’m hooked! My Waterwight series started with a dream and begged me to remember it. The books on my recommendation list didn’t have to beg me. Their characters and plots grabbed me, shook me, and made me feel it all—the good and the bad. I especially love psychological drama and dark humor, maybe because those elements populate my dreams, maybe because of my years in the Army followed by years of teaching. Life’s too short to waste on books that make you say, “Meh.” Give yourself permission not to finish those.


I wrote...

Waterwight: Book 1 of the Waterwight Series

By Laurel McHargue,

Book cover of Waterwight: Book 1 of the Waterwight Series

What is my book about?

In a post-cataclysmic world threatened by stinking ooze, a brave girl searches for her parents with the help of talking animals and evolving powers. When a mountain spirit challenges her to save the planet, she must overcome a magical, malicious castle of sand and a shapeshifter who wants her dead. “Mustn’t. Just mustn’t. Now run along and be a good girl like the others...”

But Celeste isn’t like the others. She’s done with being shunned by those who refuse to discuss “The Event,” the global catastrophe that changed the planet, left them orphans, and continues to pose a threat to frightened survivors. Kirkus Reviews calls Waterwight "...powerfully spooky, reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Coraline...."

Asylums

By Erving Goffman,

Book cover of Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates

This classic account by a renowned sociologist is critical reading for those interested in the anti-psychiatry movement, a crusade that viewed psychiatry as more coercive than therapeutic and, in some cases, questioned the reality of mental illness itself. For one year, Goffman embedded himself in St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington, DC, where he ultimately concluded that the defining features of the asylum – similar to those of prisons and other “total institutions” – did more to shape the patient’s behavior than the supposed illness for which the patient had been admitted in the first place. Goffman’s observations left a significant impact on popular ideas about asylum care and helped contribute to widespread deinstitutionalization several decades later.


Who am I?

I’ve spent the last decade researching and writing about mental illness and how it manifests in different cultures. My research has led me to archives in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, where I’ve uncovered documents from the earliest Chinese-managed asylums and psychopathic hospitals – documents that give rare glimpses into what it was like to have been mentally ill in China at the turn of the twentieth century. My book, The Invention of Madness, is the first monographic study of mental illness in China in the modern period.


I wrote...

The Invention of Madness: State, Society, and the Insane in Modern China

By Emily Baum,

Book cover of The Invention of Madness: State, Society, and the Insane in Modern China

What is my book about?

Prior to the twentieth century, madness wasn’t considered a discrete condition in China, and specialized institutions like asylums did not exist. Western missionaries and physicians tried to change that. This book traces the evolution of “madness” in modern China, showing how it was eventually transformed in the Chinese imagination into “mental illness”.

Examining how different social actors, including the police, Chinese medicine doctors, and government bureaucrats, tackled the problem of insanity throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, The Invention of Madness grapples with what it meant to be mad in a China undergoing rapid social change and political upheaval.

The Last Warner Woman

By Kei Miller,

Book cover of The Last Warner Woman

Oh, this book was just magical. And the ending – wow! Everything comes together and how. The writing is just beautiful and the story is enchanting. This book transported me and wowed me - truly I wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did. I cried so much while reading this book – the language is so poetic and lyrical. It is a story about stories and it is a masterpiece in my opinion. 


Who am I?

I grew up in a small village in India. The nearest library was in the next town, two bus rides and a long walk away and comprised of one bookshelf, half full, the books with several pages missing. I read and reread those books, making up my own narratives for the missing pages. I suppose this was the crucial first step in my journey to author. I write stories featuring diverse protagonists. In my books, I explore themes of displacement and belonging, how people brought up in different cultures and during different times respond to challenges, how their interactions and reactions are informed by their different upbringings and values.


I wrote...

The Girl in the Painting: A heartbreaking historical novel of family secrets, betrayal and love

By Renita D'Silva,

Book cover of The Girl in the Painting: A heartbreaking historical novel of family secrets, betrayal and love

What is my book about?

In colonial India a young woman finds herself faced with an impossible choice, the consequences of which will echo through the generations…

1928. In British-ruled India, headstrong Sita longs to choose her own path, but her only destiny is a good marriage. After a chance meeting with a Crown Prince leads to a match, her family’s status seems secured and she moves into the palace, where peacocks fill the gardens and tapestries adorn the walls. But royal life is far from simple, and her failure to provide an heir makes her position fragile. Soon Sita is on the brink of losing everything, and the only way to save herself could mean betraying her oldest friend…

The Mad Women's Ball

By Victoria Mas, Frank Wynne (translator),

Book cover of The Mad Women's Ball

Mas’ work is less about embracing what we think is our weakness and more about embracing our true strengths even when others consider them nonexistent and thus crazy. I particularly enjoyed this novel because it involves magical realism, as the main character can see and hear spirits. I am a huge fan of blending the fantastical with reality because our lives are magical in ways we often mistake as ordinary. Another thing Mas did well was show how even moderate treatments for hysteria, like hydrotherapy and hypnosis, went too far. 


Who am I?

I hold degrees in history and social science with a focus on women’s history at the turn of the century. I’ve studied the hysteria pandemic and its lasting results for over a decade. As someone who struggles with depression, anxiety, and the effects of psychological abuse, I find I know these women all too well. As a writer, I’ve been inspired by other classic gothic novels like Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. In addition to writing novels, I’m also a blogger and marketing consultant in southern California where I live with my blind dog, Mr. Magoo.


I wrote...

A White Room

By Stephanie Carroll,

Book cover of A White Room

What is my book about?

At the close of the 19th century, Emeline Evans dreams of training as a nurse, but when her father unexpectedly dies, she must sacrifice her ambitions to marry a reserved lawyer who can provide for her family. He moves her to an unusual Gothic house where her sorrow edges toward madness. Furniture twists and turns before her eyes, ghosts peer out from empty rooms, and the house itself conspires against her. The doctor diagnoses hysteria and prescribes the rest cure, which only drives her deeper into madness. Her salvation arrives only after she pursues an opportunity to nurse the poor and help women in dire circumstances. Unfortunately, to help the needy, she must secretly defy her new husband, who hunts down and prosecutes unlicensed medical practitioners. 

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