Novels About Mental Illness

Some months ago, I posted a photo of John Green’s newest release, asking for recommendations of other books about mental illness. Recommendations were sparse but included The Bell Jar, My Absolute Darling, and books by Ellen Hopkins. In reading middle-grade and young adult novels, however, I’ve ‘met’ countless characters coping with mental illness. I’ve also read a few adult novels with that theme.

Hence, this list. If you’re on the hunt for novels featuring characters dealing with mental illness, today’s your day. I’ve read half of the books on this list, and have a couple of the others on my Kindle already. My favorite thing about these books about mental illness is that while accurately depicting the struggles of mental illness — from OCD to anxiety, hoarding, and major depression — they’re hopeful. Goodreads blurbs are in Italics.


Features: Character with OCD

OCD Love Story

When Bea meets Beck, she knows instantly that he’s her kind of crazy. Sweet, strong, kinda-messed-up Beck understands her like no one else can. He makes her feel almost normal. He makes her feel like she could fall in love again.

But despite her feelings for Beck, Bea can’t stop thinking about someone else: a guy who is gorgeous and magnetic…and has no idea Bea even exists. But Bea spends a lot of time watching him. She has a journal full of notes. Some might even say she’s obsessed.

Bea tells herself she’s got it all under control. But this isn’t a choice, it’s a compulsion. The truth is, she’s breaking down…and she might end up breaking her own heart.


Features: Character with ADHD

Focused

Clea can’t control her thoughts. She knows she has to do her homework . . . but she gets distracted. She knows she can’t just say whatever thought comes into her head . . . but sometimes she can’t help herself. She know she needs to focus . . . but how can she do that when the people around her are always chewing gum loudly or making other annoying noises?

It’s starting to be a problem-not just in school, but when Clea’s playing chess or just hanging out with her best friend. Other kids are starting to notice. When Clea fails one too many tests, her parents take her to be tested, and she finds out that she has ADHD, which means her attention is all over the place instead of where it needs to be.

Clea knows life can’t continue the way it’s been going. She’s just not sure how you can fix a problem that’s all in your head. But that’s what she’s going to have to do, to find a way to focus.


Features: Character with OCD

Finding Perfect

To twelve-year-old Molly Nathans, perfect is:

―The number four
―The tip of a newly sharpened No. 2 pencil
―A crisp white pad of paper
―Her neatly aligned glass animal figurines

What’s not perfect is Molly’s mother leaving the family to take a faraway job with the promise to return in one year. Molly knows that promises are sometimes broken, so she hatches a plan to bring her mother home: Win the Lakeville Middle School Poetry Slam Contest. The winner is honored at a fancy banquet with white tablecloths. Molly is sure her mother would never miss that. Right…?

But as time passes, writing and reciting slam poetry become harder. Actually, everything becomes harder as new habits appear, and counting, cleaning, and organizing are not enough to keep Molly’s world from spinning out of control. In this fresh-voiced debut novel, one girl learns there is no such thing as perfect.


Features: Character with Hoarding Disorder

Give and Take

Family has always been important to twelve-year-old Maggie: a trapshooter, she is coached by her dad and cheered on by her mom. But her grandmother’s recent death leaves a giant hole in Maggie’s life, one which she begins to fill with an assortment of things: candy wrappers, pieces of tassel from Nana’s favorite scarf, milk cartons, sticks . . . all stuffed in cardboard boxes under her bed. Then her parents decide to take in a foster infant. But anxiety over the new baby’s departure only worsens Maggie’s hoarding, and soon she finds herself taking and taking until she spirals out of control. Ultimately, with some help from family, friends, and experts, Maggie learns that sometimes love means letting go.


The Goldfish Boy

Features: Character with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Matthew Corbin suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. He hasn’t been to school in weeks. His hands are cracked and bleeding from cleaning. He refuses to leave his bedroom. To pass the time, he observes his neighbors from his bedroom window, making mundane notes about their habits as they bustle about the cul-de-sac. 

When a toddler staying next door goes missing, it becomes apparent that Matthew was the last person to see him alive. Suddenly, Matthew finds himself at the center of a high-stakes mystery, and every one of his neighbors is a suspect. Matthew is the key to figuring out what happened and potentially saving a child’s life… but is he able to do so if it means exposing his own secrets, and stepping out from the safety of his home?


Everything Here Is Beautiful

Features: Character with Schizophrenia

Two Chinese-American sisters—Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the headstrong, unpredictable one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing. When Lucia starts hearing voices, it is Miranda who must find a way to reach her sister. Lucia impetuously plows ahead, but the bitter constant is that she is, in fact, mentally ill.

Mira T Lee writes exquisitely about mental illness, but also in general. Although writing from multiple POVs is not exactly a rarity, it is not often that it is done this convincingly. Each character is so distinct in voice and personality and that shines through in their section. Lee also manages to give the reader a 360 degree perspective on the entire story which is an enviable feat.

Most importantly, this story feels honest. Mental illness is hardly ever well defined; most patients have more than one illness at the same time. For many others, doctors aren’t sure what they have. Lucia’s story is no exception as she bounces between diagnoses.

Everything Here Is Beautiful is striking, affirming and heart-wrenching.


Turtles All the Way Down

Features: Character with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
   
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. 

I lent this book to a friend (even though I haven’t read it) and she loved it.


The Science of Breakable Things

Features: Character with Major Depressive Disorder

When Natalie’s mom stops coming out of her room for months in a row, their small family is shaken, and they stop really talking.

In THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS, Tae Keller tackles a multitude of themes with impressive finesse and relatable writing. From a parent suffering depression to what true friendship means, family and the importance of heritage, this book is loaded!

Like other fantastic books about mental illness, Keller’s book does not gloss over mental health struggles. It is honestly one of the most honest and realistic portrayals of depression I’ve read. The protagonist Natalie is brave, independent and dynamic.


Little and Lion

Features: Character with Bipolar Disorder

When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.


The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

Features: Character with an eating disorder

The Butler family has had their share of trials—as sisters Althea, Viola, and Lillian can attest—but nothing prepared them for the literal trial that will upend their lives.

Althea, the eldest sister and substitute matriarch, is a force to be reckoned with and her younger sisters have alternately appreciated and chafed at her strong will. They are as stunned as the rest of the small community when she and her husband Proctor are arrested, and in a heartbeat the family goes from one of the most respected in town to utter disgrace. The worst part is, not even her sisters are sure exactly what happened.

As Althea awaits her fate, Lillian and Viola must come together in the house they grew up in to care for their sister’s teenage daughters. What unfolds is a stunning portrait of the heart and core of an American family in a story that is as page-turning as it is important.

Like other books about mental illness, this book presents a raw and rounded view of eating disorders. I read and enjoyed this book. Full review here.


Mosquitoland

Features: Character with Generalized Anxiety Disorder

After the sudden collapse of her family, Mim Malone is dragged from her home in northern Ohio to the “wastelands” of Mississippi, where she lives in a medicated milieu with her dad and new stepmom. Before the dust has a chance to settle, she learns her mother is sick back in Cleveland.

So she ditches her new life and hops aboard a northbound Greyhound bus to her real home and her birth mother, meeting a quirky cast of fellow travelers along the way. But when her thousand-mile journey takes a few turns she could never see coming, Mim must confront her own demons, redefining her notions of love, loyalty, and what it means to be sane.


When the Truth Unravels

Features: Character with Major Depressive Disorder

RuthAnne Snow’s debut novel begins on the evening of Jenna, Elin, Ket, and Rosie’s prom. Readers immediately learn that Elin recently tried to kill herself. After some time in a treatment facility, and prescription meds, Elin’s parents want things to return to normal and pretend she never attempted suicide. Her friends keep her secret and plan for the best prom ever to convince Elin to keep living. Things are going well until midway through prom, Elin disappears.

RuthAnne Snow’s When the Truth Unravels is an ode to teenage female friendships. This young adult novel manages to address mental health, suicide, identity, and the uplifting power of female friendships. If you enjoy books with strong female characters, mystery, and a touch of romance, When the Truth Unravels is for you.


My Heart and Other Black Holes

Features: Character with Major Depressive Disorder

Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.

There’s only one problem: she’s not sure she has the courage to do it alone. But once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel’s convinced she’s found her solution—Roman, a teenage boy who’s haunted by a family tragedy, is looking for a partner.

Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each other’s broken lives.


The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Features: Character with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

Perks follows observant “wallflower” Charlie as he charts a course through the strange world between adolescence and adulthood. First dates, family drama, and new friends. Sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Devastating loss, young love, and life on the fringes. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie must learn to navigate those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.

Can we call this a classic? I read it nearly six years ago, and I still feel Charlie’s anguish. If you’re more of a movie person, check out the movie trailer of the adaptation.


Forget Me Not

Features character with Tourette syndrome

Astronomy-loving Calliope June has Tourette syndrome, so she sometimes makes faces or noises that she doesn’t mean to make. When she and her mother move yet again, she tries to hide her TS. But it isn’t long before the kids at her new school realize she’s different. Only Calliope’s neighbor, who is also the popular student body president, sees her as she truly is–an interesting person and a good friend. But is he brave enough to take their friendship public?

As Calliope navigates school, she must also face her mother’s new relationship and the fact that they might be moving–again–just as she starts to make friends and finally accept her differences.

Read this book in one sitting! This like other books about mental illness is a novel in verse. It is sooo beautifully written. I felt Calliope’s pain in every word. Such an unexpectedly moving book. Highly recommend!


Where the Watermelons Grow

Della knows what to do when the sickness that landed her mama in the hospital four years ago spirals out of control again, and Mama starts hearing people who aren’t there, scrubbing the kitchen floor until her hands are raw, and waking up at night to cut the black seeds from all the watermelons in the house. With Daddy struggling to save the farm from a record-breaking drought, Della decides it’s up to her to heal Mama for good. And she knows just how she’ll do it: with a jar of the Bee Lady’s magic honey, which has mended the wounds and woes of Maryville for generations.

I enjoyed this book just as much as it broke my heart.


Features: Characters with eating disorders

The Girls at 17 Swann Street

Anna Roux was a professional dancer who followed the man of her dreams from Paris to Missouri. There, alone with her biggest fears – imperfection, failure, loneliness – she spirals down anorexia and depression till she weighs a mere eighty-eight pounds. Forced to seek treatment, she is admitted as a patient at 17 Swann Street, a peach pink house where pale, fragile women with life-threatening eating disorders live. Women like Emm, the veteran; quiet Valerie; Julia, always hungry. Together, they must fight their diseases and face six meals a day.

Every bite causes anxiety. Every flavor induces guilt. And every step Anna takes toward recovery will require strength, endurance, and the support of the girls at 17 Swann Street.

Have you read any of these books about mental illness on this list? Do you have any favorite books about mental illness? I’d love to know.

– Afoma

2 thoughts on “Novels About Mental Illness

  1. Hi Afoma! I missed your call for recommendations. If I hadn’t, I definitely would’ve suggested Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Haven’t read any on this list but I’ve seen a couple I would definitely like to read

    1. Hi! I’ve read Eleanor! Love her. I don’t think she was mentally ill though. I tried to include recommendations where the author specifically mentions the mental illness 🙂 Hope you enjoy the books you decide on!

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