May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so we are spotlighting books that offer insight into the lives and minds of authors and characters who experience mental illness or neurodivergence. Neurodiversity refers to the idea that the human brain contains natural variations, which result in different social, emotional, and educational needs and aptitudes. Neurodiversity is a social movement that seeks to recast traditionally pathologized neurological differences, such as autism, as natural aspects of human diversity.
Literature has long been an outlet through which people can relate their perspectives and experiences of reality to others. However, neurodivergent and mentally ill people have historically been silenced and reduced to stereotypical and stigmatizing caricatures. Modern efforts to destigmatize mental health have led authors and activists to reclaim their stories and explore the myriad challenges and triumphs associated with mental illness and neurodivergence.
The following 7 titles, ranging from dark fantasy to memoir, explore different aspects of mental health through the lenses of authors who share in their characters’ experiences and diagnoses.
1. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
Emily X. R. Pan’s stunningly rich debut novel details Leigh Chen Sanders’s search for answers in the wake of her mother’s suicide. Leigh becomes convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird and decides to travel to Taiwan to reconnect with her estranged maternal grandparents. As she learns more about her culture and family history, Leigh also uncovers more information about her mother. As Leigh processes her own feelings of grief and guilt, she is forced to confront the realities of her mother’s untreated depression and the pervasive stigma surrounding mental health.
Page count: 462
Publish date: March 20, 2018
2. Borderline by Mishell Baker
Mishell Baker’s debut novel, Borderline, is a riveting urban fantasy adventure about Millie Roper, a double amputee with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). After a failed suicide attempt leaves her scrambling to put her life back together, Millie is recruited by the Arcadia Project, a secret agency dedicated to maintaining human-fae relations. Baker draws extensively from her own experiences with BPD to create a story that is refreshingly devoid of cliches. Borderline refuses to treat mental health as a prop, instead focusing on Millie’s everyday realities as she contends with her new career and the magic and mayhem it entails.
Page count: 390
Publish date: March 1, 2016
3. Don’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson
Rachel M. Wilson’s novel Don’t Touch combines Wilson’s own experiences with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a charming cast of characters, and some surprisingly deep ruminations on Hamlet. In the wake of her parents’ divorce, protagonist Caddie Finn develops a mantra: as long as she doesn’t touch another person, her parents might get back together. Caddie knows that this is illogical, but her OCD makes it a difficult superstition to defy. However, in order to achieve her goals, Caddie must learn to overcome her fears and manage her compulsions in a healthier way.
Page count: 432
Publish date: September 2, 2014
4. The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel The Drowning Girl is a fictional memoir, written from the perspective of India Morgan Phelps, a schizophrenic artist who becomes embroiled in the mysteries surrounding a hitchhiker she picks up named Eva Canning. The memoir structure of the novel—and India’s struggles to manage her schizophrenia—results in an unreliable narration, with India spiraling between lucidity and fantasy as her obsession with the mystery grows. The result is a suspenseful, dark fantasy novel that takes time to educate readers about schizophrenia and push back against the negative stigma associated with it.
Page count: 332
Publish date: March 6, 2012
5. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Freshwater is Akwaeke Emezi’s semi-autobiographical debut novel about Ada, a Nigerian woman who travels to the United States for university. Ada experiences what Western psychology would refer to as Dissociative Identity Disorder—that is, she has multiple personas that step forward at different times. However, Emezi rejects Western narratives surrounding mental health, instead offering an alternative lens by grounding Ada’s experiences in traditional Nigerian religious beliefs.
Page count: 229
Publish date: February 13, 2018
6. Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me by Ellen Forney
Marbles, an autobiographical graphic novel written and illustrated by Ellen Forney, explores Forney’s journey in the aftermath of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Forney struggles with the diagnosis, worried about how going on medication will impact her creativity. However, as she researches more about bipolar disorder and attends therapy, she begins to draw inspiration from other mentally ill artists, such as Sylvia Plath and Vincent Van Gogh. Marbles is an eccentric and deeply personal rumination on identity, creativity, self-advocacy, and the struggle of finding the right balance.
Page count: 256
Publish date: November 6, 2012
7. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Set in a dystopian future, An Unkindness of Ghosts depicts the last vestiges of humanity living aboard a spaceship called the Matilda. The autistic protagonist, Aster, must unravel the mystery behind her mother’s death while simultaneously contending with the rampant abuse and racism that plagues the Matilda. Solomon doesn’t tokenize diversity, treating queerness, neurodivergence, and race as natural parts of the world. However, the novel refuses to ignore the oppression faced by those who live in the margins of society, layering together hope and tragedy as Aster struggles towards a better future.
Page count: 351
Publish date: October 3, 2017
Mental health is a broad and complicated topic, encompassing a variety of experiences, conditions, and management strategies. If you or someone you know is struggling or just wants to learn more, the following list of resources may be able to help:
• PsychCentral provides an annotated list of resources to help educate people about a variety of conditions. It also provides a range of other resources and support networks.
• The National Alliance on Mental Illness compiles personal stories, helpful guides, crisis helplines, and community resources.
• Mental Health Resources is a community-based organization focused on recovery and self-advocacy.
• PsychologyToday has a directory to help connect people with therapists in their area.
• Teen Health and Wellness provides a list of hotlines and services oriented towards teens struggling with mental health, bullying, and other issues.
• The National Suicide Prevention Hotline provides free, anonymous, around the clock support to those in crisis as well as resources for suicide prevention and education. Hotline Number: 1-(800)-273-8255