Tired of the gap between Google Scholar and on-line mental health forums? Looking for hard information on the science behind a disorder? Head to a bricks & mortar bookshop but don’t forget to bring your torch. Mental health books for the general reader are still a boutique genre.
First, go to the back of the shop and look for a section on PSYCHOLOGY or PSYCHIATRY. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a couple of accounts of the experience of mental illness, and occasionally of psychosis. You may even encounter (rarely) a textbook.
Next try HEALTH. Current trends are for diets, sugar, whole foods, and the like. But if you look hard you may find the odd handbook, eg Living with Schizophrenia, A Family Guide to Making a Difference.
Wander over to WELLNESS, often presumptuously next to ‘Spirituality’. Here you’ll find books with titles like ‘Think Happy‘ and ‘Embrace Yourself‘. In some shops, WELLNESS is a synonym for HEALTH. One airport bookshop shelf was rather efficiently labelled MIND BODY & SOUL. These shelves typically encompass mental and physical well-being rather than the mechanics of illness and medicine. I’ve never seen a bookshelf called DISEASE.
In the PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT stack, probably on the bottom shelf, you’ll find titles such as Mental: Everything You Never Knew You Needed to Know about Mental Health. I’ve seen guides on ‘maintaining’ mental health, but rarely on managing its loss. Why is ‘mental health’ often conflated with ‘wellness’? In one bookshop I found Bella Figura, a memoir of escaping corporate life in grey London and starting afresh in Florence – a cross between Eat Pray Love and My Year in Provence. Is this a ‘neuro-wellness’ memoir?
Circle back to BIOGRAPHIES, typically placed front of shop. This should capture new first or second-hand accounts of mental illness – often marketed as a hellish journey – before they get parked at the back. The spine title may give a hint. I found one with Falling into the Fire on the spine, and the subheading A psychiatrist’s encounters with the mind in crisis on the front cover. Another that I picked purely for its spine was The Stranger on the Bridge. On the cover was My journey from Despair to Hope, an autobiography of a person with schizo-affective disorder.
CURRENT AFFAIRS often displays a couple of books related to mental health. Some tend to the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ market; others put a spotlight on contemporary issues like police homicide and mental health. Stay tuned for my views on the current Australian scene, including Kate Wild’s Waiting for Elijah and Mary Pershall’s Gorgeous Girl.
The SCIENCE shelves typically contain books on how the brain works but are short on introductory texts on the science behind mental illness. Doctor memoirs may turn up here, usually about the clinical history of interesting patients eg Admissions, A Life in Brain Surgery. Another trend is for books by medical specialists who have experienced a neurological or mental health episode eg The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: A memoir of madness and recovery. A popular sub-genre is psychedelic drugs and mental health, eg How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics.
Finally, it’s worth checking the CULTURAL STUDIES stack. Here you might find poetry of sadness and works by or about Sylvia Plath. I’ve recently encountered online references to a Cultural Studies/History of Psychiatry micro-genre ‘Mad Studies’ but it’s yet to go mainstream and there’s nothing on the shelves.
Where are the good books for the literate layperson? Got any hot tips? Let the Rosella Room know.
Books noted in this post
Jeffrey Rado et al, Living with Schizophrenia, A Family Guide to Making a Difference (2016)
Steve Ellen & Catherine Deveny, Mental: Everything You Never Knew You Needed to Know about Mental Health (2018)
Kamin Mohammadi, Bella Figura (2018)
Christine Montross, Falling into the Fire, A psychiatrist’s encounters with the mind in crisis (2013)
Jonny Benjamin, The Stranger on the Bridge, My journey from Despair to Hope (2018)
Kate Wild, Waiting for Elijah (2018)
Mary Pershall, Gorgeous Girl (2018)
Henry Marsh, Admissions, A Life in Brain Surgery (2017)
Barbara K Lipska, The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: A memoir of madness and recovery (2018)
Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics (2018)