Mental illness is a term for a broad spectrum of conditions that have a profound impact on an individual’s ability to cope with the world and sustain personal relationships. Public health officials estimate that one in four Americans suffers from a mental health disorder over the course of any given year. Some of these conditions are transient while others have a permanent effect. Over 90 percent of all suicides in the United States are committed by people with a mental health illness or disorder.
Over the years, a number of people have written in-depth about mental illness, both from the clinical and personal perspective. Here are five incredible books that offer valuable insights into the mental illness experience.
1. “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath: Major depression.
“The Bell Jar,” tells the story of Esther Greenwood, hospitalized after a suicide attempt. The novel’s title is derived from the name of a specialized piece of laboratory equipment used to contain vacuums.
At the end of Chapter 2, Esther Greenwood offers her own diagnosis of her mental health. She feels like someone who’s harboring multiple personalities, she tells readers in an editorial aside. It seems more likely, however, that Esther was suffering from major depression and that her other symptoms were attempts to dissociate herself from the intensity of her feelings.
2. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey: Schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder.
Randle McMurphy, the anti-hero of Ken Kesey’s classic novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is charming, friendly, and upbeat, but he is also manipulative, impulsive, and intensely self-involved. These last three characteristics are manifestations of a mental illness known as a borderline personality disorder.
To stay out of prison, McMurphy has opted for hospitalization at an Oregon psychiatric hospital. There, he crosses swords with Nurse Ratched, the former Army nurse who runs the ward like her own private domain. The novel’s point of view character is Chief Bromden, a paranoid schizophrenic.
3. “Girl Interrupted” by Susanna Kaysen: Borderline personality disorder.
Susanna, the protagonist of “Girl Interrupted,” shares her first name with the novel’s author, which makes it difficult to know where real life ends and fiction begins. The novel begins with Susanna’s psychiatric hospitalization after ingesting a bottle of aspirin with a quart of vodka. In the hospital, she behaves in some of the impulsive and potentially destructive ways that so often characterize the behavior of people with borderline personality disorders.
4. “The Eden Express” by Mark Vonnegut: Drug-induced psychosis.
“The Eden Express” is a memoir written by Mark Vonnegut, the son of well-known American writer Kurt Vonnegut. The memoir describes the author’s mental breakdown following the ingestion of mescaline. Mark Vonnegut’s initial diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia. However, he eventually recovered from his illness and went on to attend medical school, which argues that his illness was limited in nature.
5. “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” by Joanne Greenberg: Major depression.
Deborah Blau, the protagonist of “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” is hospitalized for what her doctors described as schizophrenia. A bright and creative young woman, Deborah has created a mythical landscape, the Kingdom of Yr, into which she often retreats when she can’t cope with reality. Deborah’s descriptions of her own experiences and her eventual recovery make it seem more likely she suffered from a major depressive disorder with somatization, a condition in which patients suffer physical symptoms related to their mental illness.