25 books directly related to psychiatric hospitals 📚

All 25 psychiatric hospital books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Alice

By Christina Henry,

Book cover of Alice

Why this book?

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.


The Last Warner Woman

By Kei Miller,

Book cover of The Last Warner Woman

Why this book?

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. 


Wildthorn

By Jane Eagland,

Book cover of Wildthorn

Why this book?

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…


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.


W-3

By Bette Howland,

Book cover of W-3

Why this book?

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. 


Faces in the Water

By Janet Frame,

Book cover of Faces in the Water

Why this book?

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. 


My Happy Life

By Lydia Millet,

Book cover of My Happy Life

Why this book?

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.


Bedlam

By Catharine Arnold,

Book cover of Bedlam

Why this book?

Long before the Victorian asylums, there was Bethlem – London’s ancient hospital for lunatics. Like Broadmoor, Bethlem also looked after high-profile criminals, but within a private and charitable institution that was mostly for the capital’s waifs and strays. Bedlam gives you a sense of how mental health developed as a concept from the medieval period to the present day.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

By Ken Kesey,

Book cover of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Why this book?

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.


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

By Erving Goffman,

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

Why this book?

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.


The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times

By Barbara Taylor,

Book cover of The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times

Why this book?

Ever since the anti-psychiatry movement began in the 1960s, the asylum has gotten a pretty bad rap (think: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book I would have recommended had I been given a sixth choice!). Barbara Taylor’s brave memoir brings an unexpectedly positive reassessment of an institution where she spent several years of her life: Friern Mental Hospital, also known as the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. After experiencing severe anxiety, Taylor was admitted to Friern in 1988 where she found a meaningful community and therapeutic support network before the hospital was dismantled in the early 1990s. The ultimate erosion of the asylum system, Taylor contends, left patients like her with few places to turn for long-term care and support.  


The Mad Women's Ball

By Victoria Mas, Frank Wynne (translator),

Book cover of The Mad Women's Ball

Why this book?

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. 


Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England

By Sarah Wise,

Book cover of Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England

Why this book?

I like to write about public Victorian asylums – where the bulk of English people with mental illnesses were admitted.  But the counterpoint is the private system, where the poor, rich mad spent their time in nice surroundings with wacky treatments. Sarah Wise captures this perfectly through a real-life investigation of the people in the attic – think Jane Eyre, or The Woman in White – and how the law sought to protect them.


It's Kind of a Funny Story

By Ned Vizzini,

Book cover of It's Kind of a Funny Story

Why this book?

Just like the title says, a YA novel that draws freely on humor while dealing responsibly with the serious subjects of suicidality and psychiatric hospitalization. Craig Gilner unravels under the pressure of a high-intensity NYC private high school and almost attempts suicide. He checks into the psychiatric ward of the local hospital where instead he comes to terms with his mental health with the help of other patients and staff. The quick turn-around is arguably a little unrealistic, but the story is undeniably told from the point-of-view of someone who knows it firsthand.


Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness

By Catherine Cho,

Book cover of Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness

Why this book?

This memoir of postpartum psychosis is not for the faint of heart, but is an absolutely necessary addition to the motherhood literary canon. In beautiful prose, it charts the author’s increasing mental instability following the birth of her son. These are the types of stories that should be shared more frequently to reduce the stigma of perinatal mood disorders. 


Beyond The Moon

By Catherine Taylor,

Book cover of Beyond The Moon

Why this book?

This is Taylor’s debut novel and like my book, the time slip element takes us back to World War 1 in 1916. Louisa is admitted to Coldbrook Hall Psychiatric hospital after an accident in which she is believed to have tried to commit suicide. Whilst there she slips back to her days at a hospital treating wounded soldiers and falls in love with Robert Lovett. Not only must she find a way to remain with him, but she must find him when he is taken prisoner on the Western Front. The detailed descriptions of life in the trenches really brought the horrors of WW1 to life. Taylor has researched this area thoroughly and her vivid writing style allows the reader to experience the cold, muddy, and rat-infested conditions for themselves. 

The author’s observations on everyday life during the war add interest and are sometimes surprising, for instance, the fact that West End shows were still running, the attitudes towards women undertaking war work, and the consequences of shell shock for those returning to normal life. I also liked that Louisa finds an ally who believes her story and helps her rather than dismissing her as delusional. 

This book contrasts with many time slips in that Louisa is mistaken for a woman from the past and takes on her identity, living her life when it is tragically cut short. 

My only reservation with this story is the portrayal of Coldbrook Hall in the present. Louisa is admitted against her will and whilst we know this is entirely possible, I found it unlikely she would be considered suicidal it would be clear to anyone involved that the landslide was a natural occurrence and not a suicide attempt. That aside, the love story element and the historical detail will keep readers turning the pages and if you sign up for the author’s newsletter you get bonus content too.


I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

By Joanne Greenberg,

Book cover of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

Why this book?

Originally published in 1964 under the pen name Hannah Green, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a bleak but beautifully-written book that has recently been reissued after some time out of print. It tells the story of Deborah Blau, 16, incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. The book is a thinly-disguised autobiographical account; Greenberg spent years at Maryland’s Chestnut Lodge, where she was helped in her recovery by the understanding and unconventional therapy provided by Freida Fromm-Reichman (Dr. Fried in the book). Much of the time, Deborah retreats into her own world, with its own language, gods, and history. The book helped me to understand why a person might elect to live in their own mind, where their world, although dark, is at least within their control.


The Cornish Captive

By Nicola Pryce,

Book cover of The Cornish Captive

Why this book?

The Cornish Captive makes a powerful portrayal of abduction and imprisonment, as well as describing the forces of mental stress under the elemental pressures of Cornish life of that time. Cornish society then was unbelievably brutal. I identify so strongly with the sufferings of any sensitive soul under those conditions.


Ten Days in a Mad-House

By Nellie Bly,

Book cover of Ten Days in a Mad-House

Why this book?

Nellie Bly was one of the great muckraking reporters in American history. She pretends to be insane and is admitted to the “mad house.” Along the way, she exposes the horrible treatment of those suffering from mental illness, but of her treatment in a boarding home, where spoiled beef was served.

Many at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Roosevelt Island suffered no mental illness; they simply didn’t know how to speak English, she wrote. “I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret—pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself.”

Her reporting led to a grand jury investigation and reforms inside the asylum.


The Bell Jar

By Sylvia Plath,

Book cover of The Bell Jar

Why this book?

First published in 1961 under the name Victoria Lucas, The Bell Jar describes Esther Greenwood’s suicide attempt and subsequent “nervous breakdown,” loosely based on the author’s own experiences. With its wry, mordant humor, memorable scenes, and unexpected observations, the book has become a classic, its status tragically affirmed by Plath’s own suicide in 1963. Like many young women, I read it in my late teens, but I’ve returned to it more than once over the years. With time, the book resonates on different levels. Now, I identify less with Esther and admire her more. Only the second part of the book is set in a psychiatric hospital (based on McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, where Plath was a patient in 1953). 


The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

By Simon Winchester,

Book cover of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Why this book?

The Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest of all dictionaries, and, as it turns out, a large percentage of its original entries were composed by a murderer living in an asylum for the criminally insane. It is an extraordinary story, and one that could easily become sensationalist or maudlin; this one never does. Relatively slim and entirely accessible, the book wears its erudition lightly; Simon Winchester narrates with seemingly effortless scholarship and a distinctly English offhand charm, deftly balancing tones that run the gamut from dark to winsome. The Professor and the Madman is a paean to the majesty of the English language, and a testament that invaluable learning can be pursued even by the most unexpected individuals, even in the most forbidding places.


The Snake Pit

By Mary Jane Ward,

Book cover of The Snake Pit

Why this book?

This is the 75th anniversary edition of a book first published in 1946, a best-seller at the time, and the impetus for changes in the treatment of psychiatric patients. The narrator, novelist Victoria Cunningham, finds herself incarcerated in a corrupt and badly-run hospital with little memory of how she got there; I was disturbed by the way she had to navigate through an obscure, nonsensical bureaucracy that seems more insane than any of the hospital’s patients. Virginia is supported by her loving and loyal husband, but at times she loses track of her memories and forgets who he is. The book is frightening—especially given that it’s based on the author’s own experiences at Bellevue Hospital in New York—but also intimate and moving.


The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins,

Book cover of The Woman in White

Why this book?

When you read this early English mystery novel by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens’ best bud, you travel through time and space. You land in a strangely familiar London before venturing into rural England nearly 200 years ago. And you feel disconcertingly at home, ready to be bamboozled, fall in love, and fight for what’s right. Collins is credited with inventing the crime-mystery genre (I’m not convinced that’s true or important). The writing is mesmerizing, gorgeous. The characters are unforgettable: Walter Hartwright, the earnest, dogged hero; the beautiful, tragic Woman in White; the irresistibly monstrous Italian Count Fosco and his pet songbirds; the feckless, hypochondriac Mr. Fairlie. Collins keeps you guessing. If ever proof were needed, The Woman in White confirms crime-mystery as great literature.


Sharp Objects

By Gillian Flynn,

Book cover of Sharp Objects

Why this book?

In Ember Natalie is let down by her father. She is forced to be the adult and raise her siblings. She has a tough childhood, or in her own words ‘never had one.’ Many people are not sympathetic to this but it is tough when you were never loved nor cared for as a child. Anyway, to take this to the extreme: Sharp Objects. I was intrigued by the mother in Sharp Objects and how Camille’s life has been affected by her mother. 

Sharp Objects has a lot to say about the parent's relationship with their child and how delving back into your childhood can be a dangerous and harrowing thing. It is such a brave and well-written book.


Shutter Island

By Dennis Lehane,

Book cover of Shutter Island

Why this book?

Where do you site a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, with a reputation for controversial research and experimental techniques? A far-flung island, of course. US marshal Teddy Daniels has barely landed on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a beautiful, enigmatic murderer, before he starts to question everything he is being told. Is someone trying to drive him insane? As a killer hurricane traps Teddy on the island, we start to share his fears. Who is lying to us? Quite possibly, everyone, Teddy included. I adore unreliable narrators and this is gothic psychological horror writing at its best.