Mental health is a popular theme in fiction but negative stereotypes abound. Charlotte Brontë has a lot to answer for with her madwoman in the attic in the classic novel Jane Eyre. As a former clinical psychologist turned fiction author and book blogger, I’m always on the lookout for realistic portrayals of mental health difficulties in fiction.
In support of World Mental Health Day on Sunday (October 10th), let me introduce you to five novels with authentic mental health depictions that tell an entertaining and credible story about a character whose emotional struggles would earn them a psychiatric diagnosis.
1. Blue Tide Rising by Clare Stevens
Unemployed and probably unemployable, Amy Blue lives alone in a grotty part of Manchester, the domain of boarded-up pubs and payday loan shops and people her social worker describes as ‘hard to reach’ and she finds hard to avoid. When Jay penetrates her diazepam haze to appear in her bedsit, she assumes he’s part of a psychiatric befriending service, although he’s more pushy than she might expect.
Gradually, the relationship develops: she tells him how she got to this point while he sets her tasks to get her out of it, small steps towards engaging with the world. Amy certainly hasn’t had it easy: orphaned at ten, she’s palmed off on an aunt she barely knows and is groomed by a friend’s father. More abuse, neglect and loss follow, until she tries to take her own life.
When Jay sends her to North Wales, with instructions not to mention him, Amy is unsure. But, immediately welcomed by the owners of the coastal eco-farm, she begins to mend. During her time there, she manages to heal the rift between her hosts and their son, Adam. But then Jay turns up with a strange request, as payback for how he’s helped her.
With quirky characters, evocative settings, and a redemptive resolution, Blue Tide Rising elucidates the impact of adverse life experiences on mental health – and how we can recover.
2. She Chose Me by Tracey Emerson
After twenty years teaching abroad, Grace returns to England to care for her estranged mother. But Grace feels torn between her personal priorities and duty, her need for reconciliation and her desire to let go. Stressed and lonely, and troubled by anonymous letters and phone calls, Grace’s unravelling is convincing, especially when paired with her diary entries from a hospital ward twenty years before.
Adopted as a baby, Cassie has been looking for her birth mother since she was a child. Now she feels she’s found her, she’ll go to any lengths to prevent being abandoned again. Cassie is a disturbed and disturbing young woman with an impressive capacity to bend reality to serve her own psychological needs.
The women’s mental health issues are never sensationalised, despite his being a thriller. She Chose Me is an intelligent and accessible read that continually surprises and intrigues.
3. Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
As the world prepares to see in the New Year with a party, forty-year-old New York writer, Bunny, can hardly stir herself from the sofa, let alone make small talk and look as if she’s having fun. Her depression would be a fine excuse to opt out of dinner with her husband and two other couples at a pretentious restaurant, followed by a party hosted by people she hates. But, true to the paradox that those who are prone to depression often neglect their own emotional needs, and they’re especially bad at taking care of themselves when they need it most, she’s determined to go.
So, despite her husband’s efforts to dissuade her, despite not having had the energy to wash for a week, Bunny gets ready. But she doesn’t make it to the party. Instead, she welcomes in the New Year on a psychiatric ward.
It’s hard to write honestly about depression without sucking the reader into the mire; Rabbits for Food not only achieves that, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
4. The Octopus Man by Jasper Gibson
Tom doesn’t expect life to be easy; what matters is following the true path. Single, jobless and reliant on benefits, he prioritises abstinence, spreading kindness, and attending to the voice of his god. When the novel opens, Tom is under pressure from both his sister and his care coordinator to participate in a drug trial. His psychiatrist refuses to prescribe the only medication Tom deems effective but, as a patient, his assessment of his own well-being is overruled.
Jasper Gibson wrote The Octopus Man after the death of a family member who had a schizophrenia diagnosis. In my career as a clinical psychologist, I met many people like Tom. They also had a love-hate relationship with voices that swung between protection and persecution. They felt a similar ambivalence about depending on a service system that dismissed their cherished beliefs. They experienced the humiliation of underperforming, and being patronised by care staff.
This is a beautifully written and absorbing story, narrated by an unusual character who is as eloquent in his observations of his surroundings as he is in portraying his inner world. I strongly recommend The Octopus Man for its compassion and humour, and, and in every sense, for the voice.
5. Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin
Matty is a seventy-year-old woman who has been in a psychiatric hospital since her admission at the age of twenty after having an ‘illegitimate’ child. The staff are both amused and frustrated by her alternative reality, but what they pathologise as delusion has enabled her to survive decades of involuntary segregation. To Matty, Ghyllside is a country estate, the nurses are servants, her fellow patients are houseguests and the psychiatrists are journalists researching stories about a society heiress.
When Janice, a newly-qualified social worker arrives on the scene, the hospital is scheduled for closure. Outraged at the historical injustice, she’s determined that Matty will be among the first to be resettled in the community. But Janice’s own issues blind her to the risks. She neglects the signs that good intentions don’t automatically produce good results.
Told with compassion and humour, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home has been described as ‘a poignant, compelling and brilliantly authentic portrayal of asylum life, with a quirky protagonist you won’t easily forget’.
More Novels with Authentic Mental Health Depictions
If you’re looking for more options of authentic mental health depictions in fiction, take a look at our range of books with a mental health theme – with genres ranging from sci-fi noir to non-fiction to YA Fantasy.