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Book Box: Seven powerful books on mental health

Hey readers,

One summer evening in Mumbai, we sat around a table. We were discussing an intensely personal story a writer in our group had just written – a rough draft that would go on to become a best-selling memoir on mental health.

Hearing that story gave us the courage to bring up our own struggles: Growing up with a bipolar father, bringing up a child with anxiety. Because this is what books on mental health do — they help you understand yourself and others. They tell you that you are not alone. They offer techniques to cope with anxiety, anger, sadness, and grief.

May is mental health awareness month, and the perfect time for me to recommend these seven powerful books on mental health. Also to introduce you to Bijal Shah, the practitioner of an unusual profession — bibliotherapy or prescribing books as therapy. But first, the books.

Must-read: Book 1 of 7

Maybe you should talk to someone. 

The talented Lori Gottlieb starts as a scriptwriter and then goes on to become a doctor at Stanford Medical School and finally chooses to become a therapist. In this memoir, she talks about her patients and also weaves in her mental health journey. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is wry and self-deprecatory and raises issues we all relate to.

Em and the Big Hoom.
Em and the Big Hoom.

A young boy grows up with a manic depressive mother in this brilliantly-written novel, based on real life. The boy, his elder sister and their stoic father look after the mother, a flaming, flamboyant figure who talks about everything from sex to her own madness. I loved Em and the Big Hoom for the power of its ideas, for its clever conversations, and for its dark humour. A companion book to this story of a mentally ill parent is Educated by Tara Westover, also totally recommended.

Crime & Punishment. 
Crime & Punishment. 

To truly plumb the dark depths of the human condition, go straight to the Russian classics. The most vivid of these is Crime and Punishment. Because nobody does despair quite as brilliantly as Dostoyevsky. Consider for instance this description in the novel of the student Raskolnikov – it details an anxiety we are all too familiar with.

for some time past he had been in an overstrained irritable condition, verging on hypochondria. He had become so completely absorbed in himself, and isolated from his fellows that he dreaded meeting, not only his landlady, but anyone at all.

Must-read: Book 4 of 7

The Bell Jar. 
The Bell Jar. 

The Bell Jar is the only novel written by the poet Sylvia Plath. The story reflects Plath’s life as the protagonist’s descent into mental illness parallels Plath’s own experience. It’s dark and disturbing and raises questions about the connection between genius and insanity. For more on this, read the intriguing A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

Must-read: Book 5 of 7

Fifteen-year-old Christopher is autistic and he shows us our world through his eyes, with its claustrophobic crowds and its crazy clamour. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is simple yet unusual. Its phenomenal success has since spawned an entire genre of psychological mysteries with offbeat narrators, like the best selling The Silent Patient.

Must-read: Book 6 of 7

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. 
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. 

Eleanor Oliphant is not like other people. She can’t tell white lies, she has fewer social needs than the average human being. If you encountered a woman like her in real life, you would probably hate her. But after you read this feel-good novel told from her point of view, you begin to empathise and understand that Eleanor is not so strange after all. In fact, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Also read Convenience Store Woman and A Man Called Ove.

How I Hacked My Mental Health. 
How I Hacked My Mental Health. 

This is a book I’ve seen developing chapter by chapter, as the author and I have been part of the same writers’ group. What I love most are the three interweaving threads in this book. The first is Aparna Piramal Raje’s own story – from an alumnus of Oxford University and Harvard Business School and mother of two boys to being laid low by bipolar disorder. The second is the research and resources in the book. The third is the poems that are sprinkled through the text. All three come together to make Chemical Khichdi an absorbing, inspiring and very practical book.

From books on therapy to books as therapy, here is London-based bibliotherapist Bijal Shah who recommends books as therapy. Edited excerpts of our conversation:

Bijal Shah. 
Bijal Shah. 

1. What is bibliotherapy? 

The first origins of book therapy or bibliotherapy can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, who built libraries holding both entertainment and educational books. Aristotle’s literature was considered medicine for the soul. In the early nineteenth century, doctors were prescribing books for respite from suffering. Soldiers who were involved in World War One were reading to manage post-war trauma. In the late 1960s, poetry therapy emerged as a form of bibliotherapy

2. How did you get into book therapy?

In 2017 whilst on maternity leave with my firstborn, I built a database of books and wrote several essays on literature and therapy. By then I had completed a part-time diploma in psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy. And then when my husband was offered an international assignment in San Francisco, I left my job at Deutsche Bank in London and launched Book Therapy, a bibliotherapy and book curation service. 

3. In what ways can reading help with anxiety & depression?

Reading exercises the mind, deepens empathy, and forces us to slow down, thus managing anxiety and depression. From a bibliotherapy perspective, reading offers us an excellent coping mechanism: the right book for a specific situation can reassure us, calm us down and offer healing. Reading also helps us to stay present on the page and words, which like mindfulness, promote a sense of calm, clarity and peace – particularly when we are navigating anxiety, depression or a stressful situation.

4. Any advice for people who are too anxious to read?

1. Practice mindful reading: Reading is a form of meditation, an invitation to completely lose your mind and soul to the narrative and story, as you connect with the text and author. Allow yourself to relax and indulge in the words on the page.

2. Keep A Book Journal: As you read, you might find that the literature triggers unexpected feelings or thoughts. Use these literary prompts to reflect and process and perhaps even take them to a therapist or coach.

3. Find a reading partner: Reading together or discussing literature with a partner, friend or book club buddy reinstates this connection while requiring us to commit to reading – both of which nourish our mental well-being.

5. What is a good way to choose the right book for book therapy?

I’d say ask yourself what do you need?

Do you need connection, do you need to read about someone else going through the same thing as you? do you need some escapism as a break from the present? Or it could be that you need to fantasise so that you can get away from the difficult feelings you are going through now for a short while – so that when you come back you’ve had a good mental break and can think more clearly.

Observe what you need the most in that moment and choose a book that fulfils that e.g. a protagonist whose story is similar to yours or fantasy fiction or an author whose work you tend to connect with or enjoy.

6. Finally, what are your 5 favourite books on mental health?

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, Where to Draw the Line by Anne Katherine – a very helpful book on setting boundaries. The Beast: A Journey Through Depression by Tracy Thompson. Ambiguous Loss by Pauline Boss. On the theme of Shame, two of my favourite books are I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame by Brené Brown and Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw. 

That’s all the reading for now. Next week, I travel to New York to visit a very special independent bookstore and to look at five fun books that capture the New York vibe.

Until then, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading requests or a suggestion or two on how to improve this books newsletter, write to her at [email protected]

The views expressed are personal

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