Four Novels that Deal with Mental Illness

From the 8th – 14th May 2017, it is Mental Health Awareness Week. As someone who has experienced a variety of mental health problems in different people, I’ve come to understand people better and to learn to be more aware of their mental health. It’s not something that affects a minority. It affects us all, just like any other illness. And this week exists to highlight the importance of this.MHAW

As a writer, I’d consider myself widely read. I’ve come into so many different genres of, and what I enjoy about reading is the fact that they can say anything about everything. I’ve discovered novels that highlight what it’s like living with depression or anxiety, and tell individual stories that we can look at and realise what it’s like for other people finding their place in the world, so we’re not on our own finding ours.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky was given to me by my brother when I was 17. It was and it stuck with me for a long time. It’s the story of Charlie, a shy, awkward 16 year old boy, who has just moved to a new town where he has no friends. It’s an epistolary novel, told in the form of letters (‘Dear friend…’), which gives the narrative a very solemn and personal feel. The book deals with loneliness and making new friends and relationships. It highlights a normal teenage boy’s life, and how things can escalate very quickly at that age. There are bad decisions, heartbreak and a deeper sadness, which feels like he’s opening up to you – the reader – that gives an almost uneasy feel, but nonetheless, quite empowering. The novel’s subject matter of suicide is handled very well and conveys the real reactions of other people. The book is saying this is depression, this is suicide, this is why it happened.

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger is one of those books you hear about because it’s a famous title and almost everyone has read it. Similar to Perks, it portrays a lonely teenage boy in college. The thing about this book is its introspection and Holden’s (the narrator), attitude. He has a negative attitude about people. He seems like an arrogant, whiny boy who hasn’t a nice thing to say about anyone. But really, his attitude is a projection of his internal frustrations: growing up and becoming a man. He just doesn’t want to because he’s scared. Holden becomes increasingly depressed and is unable to express his feelings to anyone – at one point, getting a prostitute and only wanting to talk. Holden hears a boy singling: “If a body catch a body coming through the rye,” from the Robert Burns poem. When Holden feels he can talk to his sister, he tells her of a fantasy he has, where there are children running through a rye field near a cliff, and it’s his job to catch them if they fall. I think this is Holden’s hope of never having to grow up and leave his childhood, to enter adulthood and become that which he doesn’t want to be, but knowing its inevitable, so he selflessly imagines he could save other children from losing their innocence.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami is an incredible novel about depression, suicide and relationships. It’s the story of a teenage boy called Toru Watanabe who, after the suicide of his friend, 17 year old Kizuki, begins a sexual relationship with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko. Naoko suddenly leaves for a sanatorium, leaving Toru to handle things on his own. Toru meets a girl called Midori, with whom he has a relationship with. Later, we learn that Naoko had been dealing with depression following the sudden suicide of her sister several years ago. The story is about dealing with depression and suicide, while forming relationships in order to cope. When Toru wants to be in love with Midori, she asks him ‘Where are you now?’ forcing him to make up his own mind, be strong, and have an understanding where his own mind is. It’s a story about how easily we can fall apart, but how easily we can build ourselves up again.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace is about boredom. It’s about a numbness. It’s about depression. It’s about nothing. Wallace was very clever, he put himself in the book, as the author talking to the reader, just his way to make the reader laugh. The book was published posthumously, not properly finished or properly drafted, and ended almost abruptly. It’s about employees at the Inland Revenue Service in Illinois in 1985. It portrays boredom to the extent its purposefully bland and uninteresting. But it’s funny. Wallace had a talent to describe exactly what it’s like to be depressed but to show that there is humour in everything. Tragically, in 2008, David Foster Wallace committed suicide. He often wrote about this subject using humour and irony and wanted to portray how he felt while telling a joke.

These books have stuck with me since I read them. They show insights into different perspectives. The importance of seeing different perspectives is to make everyone think and realise that mental illness exists, but the stigma that exists means people hide it away.

I’ve known women suffering with mental illness who’ve been brushed aside as having ‘women’s problems’ and men who don’t open up at all because men shouldn’t express their emotions. And this just isn’t true. It’s important that the stigma that comes with mental health disappears and it’s soon seen as any other illness.

During Mental Health Awareness Week, everyone should be more open and understanding. Instead of keeping things to yourself, talk to someone you know and trust or call the Samaritans for free to talk to someone over the phone.

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