Reading and Mental Health

fiction crop

Can books and reading help with mental health issues?

In my first Blog post I explained how reading first helped me to get a feeling of escape from difficult situations in my life, and that now it helps me to understand them and myself. For me, this is an integral part of my therapeutic journey.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and what I would really like to review are the books that explicitly help readers to be more understanding and compassionate towards people with mental health issues, and the ones that guide and support sufferers in what to do when confronted with public stigma and ostracisation for their condition.
Sadly, I’ve not yet found either of these kind of books – and if anyone reading this has, please let me know!

As someone with chronic, long term mental health issues, I am passionate about raising awareness and combating stigma. When you struggle with low mood, anxiety, uncomfortable thoughts, etc, difficulties that already involve guilt and self hatred, the last thing you need is also being hated on by others, as it were, in the form of stigma…mental health awareness week

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is Mindfulness, the central remit of which is the acceptance of difficult feelings without judging them or trying to change them. This of course is something many of those without mental illness need to apply to those around them who do – accept, not judge, not try to expect them to be difficult. For those with the conditions, though, it is important to remember that these are goals are a part of all good therapeutic work. Jung himself said that we cannot change anything about ourselves unless we first accept it.

My aim in this post is to guide you on a journey towards using books, fiction and non fiction alike, to support a mindful attitude towards yourself and others. This is relevant to you whether or not you meet the diagnostic criteria for a clinical mental health issue – we ALL need a bit of extra compassion.
I will do my best to focus on books available in Brent Libraries, though I admit that WSSawI am tempted to give you a taster of my more esoteric pondering!

I recently read a crime novel by Mark Roberts entitled “What she saw”, and concluded that my actual on paper diagnosis doesn’t matter so much as the fact that I, as we all do, need kindness. How is this possible from the novel? Well, this is a complex dark thriller where the central character has been deeply traumatised from early childhood, and this governs her behaviour in the present. Because of my knowledge, I was able to work out the nature of the damage done before Roberts revealed it. What touched me so much was how he revealed and described things so compassionately. Many can be so quick to judge “deviant” behaviour without heartfully considering what the person might have been through. This novel definitely makes you sit up and think. Have any of you read any thrillers that have similarly effected you?

There are all too few memoirs by people who have lived through eating disorders primarily as an adult rather than as a teen, and unfortunately “The Time Inbetween” by Nancy Tucker is no exception. Personally, I found the exclusion of weights and BMIs to be more ‘triggering’ than if they’d actually been included, which isn’t what Nancy intended at all. I wonder how other people with experiences of eating disorders found this.
What I did learn from the book, though, was something very powerful, the profound insight that over-eating is also giving power to the under-eating of Anorexia. I believe this because it verifies it’s false beliefs and makes them real : “You are fat”. I see it as a kind of attempt at a depressed grotesque fairy tale ending. This stirs up the issue of what narrow confines diagnostic boxes can be – it is not so much to call it Anorexia, or Bulimia, or even ‘just’ a plain old Eating Disorder. It is more meaningful than that description, and could better be called Longing, Emptiness, Need. When I finally get published, a compassionate re-write of the Diagnostic Manual is on the cards!

time in betweenWhile on the subject, I’d like to whole heartedly recommend the two Janet Treasure Books on Prescription, “Getting better Bit(e) by Bit(e)” and “Anorexia Nervosa, a survival guide”. They are both full of useful information, supportively written – and, most importantly for me, are not the workbook format, which can make me feel under too much pressure and stress. That’s purely because of the way MY mind works, though, and I know that many do find that kind of help useful. There are many listed on the Books on Prescription website and leaflets. I do recommend “Overcoming Depression” by Paul Gilbert though – he’s an author who’s written a number of books about Compassion, and it’s not as severely CBT orientated as many, and something to constantly dip into, probably a good plan to eventually go and buy your own copy after borrowing, that’s what I did.bite by bite

I swear I saw “Call the Midwife” by Jennifer Worth listed as a ‘mood boosting book’ on the Reading Well list… though I can’t find it now. It definitely should be on there though, on several counts. Somewhat addicted right now to watching all the past episodes, I was really chuffed to find the Omnibus edition of her 3 memoirs at work last week. Of course you have the warmth of the families, the births, the community feel, the dedication and care of the midwives, and the spiritual dedication of the nuns. All those reasons are enough to grab a copy when you’re feeling low [Though you’ll need to wait a couple of weeks if you’re after the Omnibus version as I’m just coming to the end of the first of the 3 books in it!]. But for me in particular, what I notice is the compassionate and sensitive way those with mental health issues are portrayed.

So, there are books out there that genuinely, maybe unknowingly, promote an attitude of mindfulness and support, and the ones I’ve reviewed this month are just a snapshot. I’d be interested to hear your own recommendations and experiences.



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