Several experts from the mental health field will tell you awareness and information is key to learning about mental health — be it your own or to help someone else. Sometimes even if we know the factual details, the key lies in learning the nuances. And what other way than to read more books.
Books are often the best way in which we learn more about ourselves and the world around us. So this World Mental Health Day we reached out to experts to crowdsource a list of books to help us learn more, and get a peak into other people’s experiences and journeys. Because sometimes, reading about other people’s experiences can be cathartic. These books deal with a range of topics like the therapeutic space, a person’s relationship to their diagnosis of cancer, people’s emotional struggle and much more.
More than anything, these books speak of vulnerability — perhaps a key for our journey towards healing.
Here’s what they suggested:
1. The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz
The depth of work we do as therapists is elucidated beautifully by the author in his narratives of the therapeutic space. He touches his own humanness as well as his client’s, and opens a window into what psychotherapy really is and what it involves — showing us what a profound, humane and safe experience it really is.
— Rhea Gandhi, psychotherapist and counsellor
2. It’s Not OK to Feel Blue (and Other Lies) Inspirational People Open Up about Their Mental Health by Scarlett Curtis
There is something so powerful about seeing yourself reflected back on the pages you’re reading and when that reflection is of pain, sadness, discomfort, it’s even more so. When reading this book late last year, the situations and the contexts of the author’s were very different from mine, however the pain, the overwhelming emotions, the struggles, the journey to healing were all reflecting my own journey back to me. I loved this collection of stories so much I wanted to share my experience of pain being seen that I gifted this book, not once, but thrice.
— Bhairavi Prakash, psychologist
3. Lost Connections by Johann Hari
This book speaks of the nine societal and environmental causes that lead to depression and anxiety. Since we are starting to discuss mental health in our country more seriously, it is important to talk about the systemic causes of the same. Inequality, instability (political/economic) and poverty are big reasons for mental health issues and they come in the way of getting care as well. Hari himself takes medication and says that it is helpful, but the picture is incomplete without talking of other factors like abuse, job loss, lack of meaning and so on. I think the simple language really helps. When you get diagnosed, you feel something is wrong with you if you could not cope. This book helps you to challenge that idea. It makes you feel that you exist in a certain context, and not in a vacuum. And that things happening around you, and to you, are supposed to affect you. The less blaming stance of this approach makes individual and collective solutions possible.
— Sadaf Vidha, therapist
4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Paul, a neurosurgeon, after having finished grueling training and residency, reached the pinnacle of his medical career at the age of 35, is diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer. It’s in the face of death that we really learn to live. This book takes us through the life journey of an extraordinary human being.
I love this book for two reasons, above many others. It’s one of the most rare and humane writings that we have received. It’s raw, real, human, heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time. It really makes you reflect on your life. And even so, what does it mean to live in the face of death. It holds and contains the readers and also challenges them to deeply investigate how we choose to spend our living days.
The second reason why this book is so close to my heart is that it is a piece of someone’s life. It is their story, their journey and the people they meet on that journey. It’s a narrative that really draws on the humanity of both the Doctors and the patients. The book humanizes a relationship that is layered, complex, and above all based on love, trust, respect, willingness and readiness to work with each other. As a Psychotherapist that holds great value to me.
“When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.” We need words to survive and we need words to live through and live by. This narrative, gives us all these words, words that keep us moving.
— Shaina Vasundhara Bhatia, psychotherapist and counselling psychologist
In the times of uncertainty we’re living in, where we’re faced with the reality of death all around us, reading Paul Kalanithi can only be considered a gift. When I read this book back in 2016, not only did I find his writing poetic and almost lyrical, I found myself thinking about what it meant to be alive. Reading about a successful man dying in his 40s could make you sad, or like for me, through tears, Paul could be the inspiration you’re looking for to examine your own life and ask yourself what it means to be alive.
— Bhairavi Prakash, psychologist
5. Dark Circles by Udhyan Mukherjee
As a mental health professional, this book to me was one of the most honest and raw portrayals of mental health in an Indian context. The author doesn’t shy away from unpacking complicated family dynamics and inherited trauma both of which are key components for mental health. This is a dark narrative with unfussy prose which allows the plot and the characters to shine. Ronojoy, the protagonist, is complex and very relatable. His voice stays with you long after you have finished the book. The author taps into mental health without making it focus but maintains its relevance and doesn’t over-simplify or complicate it, thus making it a realistic portrayal. This book is a great read to read when you are in the mood for something dark and raw.
6. Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb
The book opens up about the life of a therapist and her journey seeking mental health assistance. The book tackles the stigma surrounding mental health and normalises the narrative that even mental health professionals can seek mental health support. Thus, making this book not only a great read but a call to action. The book is filled with humour, wisdom and honesty. It is a great way to gain a better understanding of mental health and what talk therapy looks like. The author keeps the prose simple and the numerous characters keep the reader engaged and invested till the end. This book is an “every mood” kind of read which is why I highly recommend it.
— Tanya Vasunia, psychologist
7. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
Imagine a classroom full of young budding psychologists sitting in a circle and discussing their most vulnerable life moments. Sharing stories of loss, challenge, struggle and strife. That’s how I was first introduced to Daring Greatly- a book that aimed to look at vulnerability and courage to be seen as the same side of the coin. Brown uses twelve years of research and personal life anecdotes to introduce the reader to concepts of shame, vulnerability and the scarcity mindset. She challenges the notion of vulnerability as a ‘dirty’ feeling and takes a hard look at what makes us afraid to be vulnerable in our lives as parents, teachers, colleagues and partners.
Vulnerability is risk, emotional exposure and uncertainty. It’s also wholehearted loving and authentic living. According to Brown, “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.” Whenever unsure or afraid, I remind myself of her mantra that courage means showing up and allowing myself to be seen. And this willingness to show up makes us ever so braver each time.
Brown’s quick-wited humour, healthy dose of harry potter references, John Gottman and Rubin’s happiness project- This book really has it all!
— Ila Kulshrestha, consultant clinical psychologist
HuffPost India is publishing a series of stories around mental health in October. You can read our other articles on the topic here.