One cannot talk about great books on mental health without first talking about mental health.
Globally mental health is a topic we often shy away from. Words like 'depression' and 'anxiety' often lead to voices dying out - uncomfortable silences that end with desperate attempts to steer the conversation back towards something more 'mundane'. But discussions regarding mental health should be mundane, should be accepted, and should never be shut down.
A sort of 'taboo' surrounds the topic of mental health making it impossible for those undergoing issues to seek help. It is engulfed in a sense of shame, a fear of being disregarded. This is much worse in India. All of this can be avoided if we choose to collectively talk about these issues instead of casting a blind eye- and the only way we can do that is through educating ourselves, challenging ourselves to hold tough conversations.
Society maintains a certain degree of apathy when it comes to the subject of mental illness. In the place of love and understanding, there is often neglect. Over 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental illness, but nearly two-thirds of those suffering with a known disorder do not seek help. Within India itself, 90 million suffer from some form of mental disorder, 150 million require active intervention, and less than 30 million receive it. Yet these stats are never spoken of, mental hospitals are understaffed while stigmas are alive and well.
I have listed below seven great books on mental health in India, I recommend everyone read. Whether you're someone struggling with these issues or someone who simply wants to learn more, these books provide you with all the knowledge you need, and more. Reading these novels and educating yourself is one of the ways you can begin to remove your internal bias, and build the compassion and sensitivity required to make discussions regarding mental health a norm.
The books I have chosen are not books of theory or essays. These are stories with people dealing with various mental illnesses in them. The characters in these stories are people living everyday lives and dealing with everything from depression to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and much more. These are regular folks like you and me, but the sensitivity with which the authors tell their stories help us relate to them, understand them. These books help us step into the shoes of these people and their care-givers.
1. All the bright places- Jennifer Niven
All the bright places is a novel about a girl learning to live from a boy who wants nothing more than to die. Theodore Finch is fascinated by the concept of dying, whereas Violet Markey, wracked with grief over her sister’s death, has been completely transformed. An unfortunate meeting on a ledge of a school tower results in the formation of a bond, a connection in the midst of pain.
The depth of the grief Violet and Finch feel, Violet's escape from it, and Finch's inability to do the same has a deafening effect on us as readers. ' A novel about growth and love, with characters that seem to endearingly real, 'All the bright places' does a beautiful job of spreading awareness regarding issues such as depression, bipolar disorder, bullying, and suicide.
2. A Book of Light- When a loved one has a different mind- Jerry Pinto
'A Book of Light' by Jerry Pinto contains a collection of thirteen stories told from the perspective of those that have loved ones with a 'different mind'. These are stories that remind us of the amount of pain and suffering we as humans are prone to- but in the midst of every struggle, there is hope. A difficult read, but one that is powerful nonetheless, a book of light reminds us that we are never alone.
3. Sepia leaves- Amandeep Sandhu
Reading sepia leaves is much like reading a personal diary- it is a story of survival, a story of honesty, grit, loss, and love. The novel follows a young man called Appu going through a photo album, reeling from the death of his father, finally coming to terms with his mother's schizophrenia, and its effect on him. Amandeep Sandhu is vulnerable and honest when discussing his childhood- or lack thereof, as he was continuously caught between his two parents, forced into a helpless position.
Baba is absent-minded and aloof, whereas his mother, whom he refers to as 'mamman', seems to be different. The house is unkempt, and her unpredictable behavior towards Baba cause Appu to take on the role of a parent, a role that is emotionally and physically exhausting. Appu's story helps us understand the difficulty of seeing someone you love suffer in ways you cannot imagine; in ways you cannot even begin to comprehend.
4. I've never been (un)happier- Shaheen Bhatt
Most of us probably know Shaheen Bhatt as Alia Bhatt's older sister. But in 'I've never been (un)happier' Bhatt does all but bare her soul to give us an insight into her journey with depression and anxiety. One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is Bhatt's acknowledgment of her privilege, and the fact that her depression is not her identity.
Emotional, enlightening, and above all, real, 'I've never been (un)happier' is a novel I would recommend to everyone: those undergoing the same struggles as Shaheen, and those who simply want to learn more about the challenges of living with a mental illness.
5. Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life - Amanda Stern
The word anxiety conjures up images of being stressed out, nervous, a state of worry. For several of us, anxiety is temporary. It comes before the night of a big presentation or an exam and dissipates as soon as we walk out of the exam hall, or escape the dimly lit conference room. But for others, anxiety is a permanent state of living, the feeling of constant dread, a knife stabbing you in the chest with each breath you take, the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Little panic is a brilliant memoir about Stern’s life with an anxiety disorder, the years she spent looking for answers as to why she felt the way she did. A beautifully written novel that resonates with those that suffer from anxiety, and offers those who don’t a whole new level of compassion.
6. Em and Big Hoom- Jerry Pinto
A beautiful novel that is nothing short of mesmerizing. The novel follows the lives of a middle-class family residing in a small one bedroom apartment in the city of Mumbai. The mother, Em, suffers from bipolar disorder, which consists of Manic ‘highs’ where she experiences seemingly unlimited joy, and depressing ‘lows’, where she attempts to take her own life. Augustine, the father, or the ‘Big Hoom’ tries to keep everyone together every single time the family tries- and fails- at a new beginning. Guilt, sorrow, joy- the novel explores every emotion you could possibly imagine, capturing perfectly the struggle with bipolar and the impact of it on the ‘caregiver’.
7. How to travel light: My memories of madness and melancholia- Shreevasta Nevatia
The title could not be more fitting: Nevatia has written a memoir of madness and melancholia that follows the life of a bipolar journalist, his highs which are filled with euphoria, and his lows, filled with hopelessness. The vicious cycle seems never-ending, and the author’s conflict with himself makes for a wonderfully-written novel that will keep you glued to the pages till the very end.
Nevatia also highlights the trouble with mental-health systems in India, and the struggles he faced whilst trying to get the help he deserved. As the novel is told through a first-person perspective, it does a marvelous job of helping us as readers understand the difficulty of living with a personality disorder. Eye-opening, riveting, and witty- ‘How to travel light’ is a story that remains etched within your memory and is impossible to forget.
8. Brink by S.L. Bhyrappa
In this English translation of the epic Kannada novel 'Anchu', the author brings forth the story of a couple who are lovers. While one is on the brink of suicide, battling depression the other person tries to help her as much as he can to deal with it.
This book talks about many aspects that impact an individual's mental health including toxic relationships. It also highlights how one's mental health can have deep and profound impact on one's personal and professional life. Not to mention, the caregiver's role in it. Living with depression is not easy and neither is being a caregiver to a person who is living with mental illness. The challenges are manifold and on various levels. This book brings all those challenges to foray brilliantly.
The finer nuances of relationships and the lingering impact of them in our well-being, is at the heart of this book. Also, one cannot forget the role of social practices and traditional cultures which are discussed in this book as an underlying theme.
9. Side Effects of Living: An Anthology of Voices on Mental Health by Jhilmil Breckenridge and Namarita Kathait
This book is an anthology where various people from different walks of life have come together to share their experiences of dealing with mental illnesses. Starting with depression to bipolar and schizophrenia, these honest accounts are heart-wrenching. The manner in which the stories are narrated is extremely lucid and it is something about this honesty which tugs the heart.
Alternating between poetry and prose, this anthology showcases the challenges faced, not only by a person who is living with mental illness but also of a caregiver. True to its title, this book talks about the side effects of living in a poignant fashion.
This is one book that challenges the taboo topic of mental health and rather, makes one think about its impact on Indian society closely.
10. The Illicit Happiness Of Other People by Manu Joseph
This is the story of Unni Chacko- a 17 year old, brilliant cartoonist. His death by suicide leads to a lot of upheaval in his family. His mother, Mariamma, already carries the baggage of childhood trauma and is trapped in an unhappy marriage. Her son's death (without a farewell note for her) leaves her further disturbed. His father, Ousep is guilty of being an emotionally-absent father. However, now he wants to find out what happened which pushed Unni to end his life. It is this journey which might seem to lead to nothing, that actually gives him answers to all his questions.
A tragic story told in the manner of a dark comedy packed with satire on day-to-day life- Manu Joseph's writing is melancholic and humorous at the same time. The characters are relatable and the story leaves a reader thinking with its plausibility.
These are a list of beautifully written stories that help us understand the mind of people suffering from mental health conditions. The more we read and educate ourselves, the more we can empathize. You can provide help by listening, understanding, and showing acceptance.