Tag Archives: mental health

Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This is almost two books in one.  It starts with a brilliantly written, but fairly typical, coming of age tale about Esther a 19 year-old student struggling with decisions about what her future holds, coming into contact with the wider world for the first time in New York, and juggling her studies with dating and friendships and pressures to choose between career and marriage/motherhood.  Then things take a darker turn as Esther’s ‘eccentricities’ and anxieties become more extreme and she starts to lose control as her mental health slides into crisis.  If one didn’t know the history of Sylvia Plath I think one wouldn’t see this shift coming from the witty, sharp, well observed and cynical but fairly gentle and comic first half.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.”

Esther is in many way a very lucky young woman (albeit most of her advantages have been earned through intelligence and hard work).  She has a scholarship to a top college, a supportive mother, she’s attractive and physically healthy, and her handsome medical student boyfriend wants to marry her.  On top of this she wins a prestigious internship to learn about and contribute to a bunch of New York magazines, this is more a prize than serious work as the organisers lay on parties and free gifts over the weeks of the scheme, but it is also a serious opportunity to make contacts and learn about the industry.  She should be on top of the world, OK the 1950s in the US aren’t the perfect time to be a woman but Esther has choices and opportunities most woman at this time would dream of.  The choices are part of the problem, Esther finds herself overthinking everything, putting extreme pressure on herself to live up to her high achieving childhood and youth as she enters adulthood.  The story is not all doom and gloom though, Esther is witty and cynical (while not always that nice!), some of her actions and observations early in the book had me laughing out loud.

This part of the tale I think everyone could relate to.  Esther’s main problem is that she doesn’t really know herself yet.  While sparkling on paper and on the surface she actually lacks inner confidence.  This is true of many young (and not so young) people trying to work out their place in the world.

The second part of the story shows that Esther has real problems above and beyond what most of us face.  Whether triggered by pressure or just part of her mental make up her mind fails to cope with life and she tips over into a kind of madness, she can no longer function normally and begins to act in a dangerous self-destructive way.  It is a stunning account of a mental breakdown from the inside and feels painfully honest.

The book is given extra poignancy by the knowledge, that most literature fan will have, that Sylvia Plath tragically committed suicide at the age of 30.  In places the book feel almost intrusive as it feels like we are seeing within Syliva Plath’s tortured brain and observing the condition that would one day kill her – a painful privilege given to us by a brilliant woman.



Borrow The Bell Jar from Brent Libraries 

the bell jar

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Filed under Book Review, books, mental health, Mental Health Awareness Week

See the Life Through Their Eyes – 13 YA Novels about Mental Health

Do you know someone that has a mental health condition? Would you like to know more about how hard are they struggling with their conditions? Would you like to find stories full of love, hate, sadness, happiness, tears, laughter, lost, pain, joy? Are you able to show empathy and patience towards all the people who need “someone to talk to”? We are not doctors, but we can be a friend, or a shoulder for someone that desperately needs it.

If the answer is YES, than have a look at the list bellow with books that shine a light on experiencing mental health difficulties. Young adult novels are powerful potions that can blow up the bridges between I’m fine and I’m not fine, and this stories remind us that above everything, we are Humans.































































































By Georgiana


Filed under books, Brent Libraries, mental health, Mental Health Awareness Week, Modern Fiction, reading, Teen fiction

#MHAW16 – The Outsider by Albert Camus.


Part 1 – review

This is the story of Meursault a French Algerian living in the early 1940s.  He is an outsider.  On paper you wouldn’t think him an outsider, he has a good job, a girlfriend, friends and a mother.  He is an outsider because of how he feels.  He approaches life with a neutral indifference, whether he is burying his mother, starting a new love affair or committing a crime – his approach is the same, matter of fact indifference.

I hope you aren’t thinking ‘that sounds weird and kind of boring’ because it isn’t (OK I do admit that as it is all written in the first person the first chapter reads quite strangely until you get used to his tone).  There’s something about his approach to life that is uplifting and his say what you see descriptions of the world around him actually create some beautiful moments.  My favourite bits are when he is describing his neighbour’s relationship with his dog, his cold observations of what he sees and hears as his neighbour comes and goes from the apartment building paint a moving portrait of the complexity and frailty of human emotion.  There is also a lovely sequence where he sits on his balcony all day and describes what he sees looking down on the street, you get a real sense of the sleepy bustle of Algiers on a hot Sunday afternoon just from his basic unflowery relating of what he can see in front of him.

Meursault does enjoy life in a way too.  He has moments of raw pleasure swimming in the sea, having sex with his girlfriend, eating a good meal etc.  He just doesn’t imbue them with meaning or emotion, they are what they are, here and now, pleasurable and fleeting.

In terms of plot, and there is a plot even though I feel this isn’t a plot driven novel,  Mersault’s mother dies in an old people’s home and he travels there to her funeral.  When he returns home he goes back to daily life and also forms a new romance and makes a new friendship.  Then, seemingly out of the blue, he commits a serious crime.  This is a very interesting point in the novel, just when you are starting to think ‘Well what’s wrong with not having conventional emotions?’, Mersault commits this extreme act – so is he mentally ill?  There are enigmatic clues that he might have suffered a trauma, he makes reference to feeling differently “before”, but doesn’t say before what, he also mentions having to abandon his studies but doesn’t say why.  Why did he do it?  The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath of the crime…I won’t tell you if questions are answered – read it to find out!


(N.B. this novel is very short, only about 100 pages, so do give it a go even if you think it’s not for you.  Even if you don’t like it it won’t be a hard slog)

Part 2 – The Outsider and mental health.

I read the outsider as it was recommended on a blog about mental health problems as a good book to read.  It appealed to me as self-help books just don’t, I always worry they will tell me what to do or try to ‘cure’ me and make me ‘normal’.  If reading to deal with mental health issues I much prefer something like this that explores issues without necessarily offering solutions.

I personally found the outsider extremely uplifting as someone dealing with mental health issues, it also made me think a few uncomfortable thoughts which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!  Meursault doesn’t think there is anything wrong with his approach to life, and I can relate to that.  Sometimes it is OK not to fit in and we don’t all have to act and feel the same.  The one size fits all approach you sometimes get to treating mental health can be frustrating when seeking help.  For example a therapist once told me that he could tell I had serious issues because I had laughed at “inappropriate things” at a previous session, I asked him what he meant and he repeated the phrase I’d laughed at – I laughed again!  I then stopped myself, did my sense of humour make me insane?  I found the quip I had made relating to death and suicide funny, darkly humorous, I still do today when I’m not in a period of crisis and am sitting calmly at my desk feeling perfectly cheerful.  Meursault goes through something similar, a priest wants him to repent for his sins and admit to believing in God and justice but he doesn’t so he won’t.  The priest becomes increasingly frustrated and Meursault starts to get bored.  It is a really good parallel with some of my experiences of therapy, the main reason I have given it up in the past has been boredom with the process, boredom with talking and boredom with listening to them tell me why I am as I am and how I should be different.

So is the conclusion live and let live, let’s all just be who we are?  Unfortunately not!  Meursault isn’t OK.  He does something both cruel, pointless and illogical.  It works out badly for everyone including himself.  Even he doesn’t seem to understand his reasons for his actions, and worryingly doesn’t even really question them.  So this book doesn’t provide the answer, but it provides lots of interesting questions and I found asking them of myself a positive exercise.




Filed under Albert Camus, Book Review, books, mental health, Mental Health Awareness Week, reading

What are you missing?

So far this year I’ve been reading lots of books, fiction and non-fiction, about missing people. That is, about people who go missing, and the people who miss them. Mostly the cause is abduction. I have a fairly good idea about why I chose these, though I can verify that it hasn’t been a purely conscious choice, I just, as is usual for me, went by books that caught my mind. Since this is Mental Health Awareness Week, the topic is very pertinent. As others who also have mental health that can be fragile will likely verify, at the peak of most severe illness, one’s very self feels to go missing. The theme of MHAW this year is Relationships, so a poignant and raw topic all round. When your self/mind/psyche/being feels to be AWOL, how on earth do you maintain the relationships you have, never mind cultivate new ones – having a relationship with your own self at those times can be even too much to bear. But it has to be done to survive, and such is the work of psychotherapy – and reading carefully chosen [whether by the conscious or subconscious mind!] books can indeed be part of this.

“What is this thing that happens? When disaster strikes and women come, with their cakes and their bandages, with their cups of tea and their soothing fingers. It’s the complicity of the birthing chamber, the laying out of the dead. They pick the bits of tragedy up off the floor and try to knit them together in some shape, the way I’d felt I could knit Carmel back to life. Not the way they were before, something lumpy and misshapen – but so there’s a whole again.”

The girl in the red coat by Kate Hamer

the-girl-in-the-red-coat-kate-hamerA few days ago I finished reading The girl in the red coat. It’s a seemingly understated book about loss. A mother loses her daughter, the daughter loses herself, the mother has lost her husband, the couple who abduct the daughter lose their way. Does the mother find her daughter? Does the daughter find herself? It is a novel about hidden powers, and the energy of love, betrayal and connection. It is rather a profound novel, and the quote above spoke to me deeply. It is highly resonant of a fairy tale, and if you’ve ever read Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes you are likely to be moved by this book.

TAsylumWhat happens when ideas of safety, freedom, longing, sanity and damage collide? The Asylum, a strong thriller by Johan Theorin attempts to address these conflicts in a labyrinth of twists and turns. The protagonist, Jan, is missing someone from his troubled childhood. He is a staff member of a nursery attached to a secure psychiatric hospital, where children of the patients receive care. This, in a different way, is also about relationships and grief.DeepShelter

Right now I’m coming to the end of Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris. It’s set in London, which for me is always a win for bringing things close to home – psychologically speaking that is. It reminds me, in a way, of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here we enter the literal underworld, a parallel world of fear and power beneath our very feet, our very heart. When we search for love and human connection, power can stand in its way, and ideas of freedom and responsibility seep in, too. There’s a deeper theme of loss in there as well, and but I will leave that to you to discover.

The damage that can ensue from someone going missing, whether physically or psychically – or both, transcends time and rationality. It threads into not only our relationship with those around us, but with the very self. It is a common theme in literature, as in life. Authors tackle it with depth and sensitivity. We see the scars on the psyche in glittering sore technicolour. Yet, it seems terribly hard for many people to actually talk about these kinds of themes with their nearest and dearest. That profound distress, that is often seen clinically as a ‘Mental Health Condition’, attracts such stigma in society, still. Many cases of such illness, however, and I count myself in this, are a result of the trauma of loss on all kinds of levels. The mind can break down under such despair and loneliness.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, therefore, perhaps take some time to ponder those times when you have experienced a sense of loss of self and/or loss of another, and open your heart to that and to the world.


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Filed under Book Review, books, Crime, mental health, Mental Health Awareness Week, Missing people, Modern Fiction, Mystery, reading, Thrillers

Not Looking Forward to Christmas

I’ve been commissioned to write a piece describing my book recommendations for those who aren’t, for whatever reason, looking forward to Christmas.

broken bauble

Christmas isn’t always a happy time

To have work commissioned makes me feel chuffed, I don’t think it’s ever happened before. And, yes, you’ve guessed it, I am not looking forward to Christmas myself. They couldn’t have asked a better person to write this piece.

I have my chronic mental health challenges to contend with, and all the more so at a time when most of my treatment team will be unavailable. That said though, everyone is making sure I will be supported. To add onto the usual yearly angst, my elderly father is awaiting medical tests that could reveal a serious, potentially life threatening illness, on top of the chronic illness he already has. So I’m worried about him, my Mum, and myself. On the positive side though, there are people who have him and my family in their prayers, which helps. It means a lot to me.

What do you do when it seems like almost everyone else around you is looking forward to a family time and lots of good food and celebrations with friends and all of that? And you…  aren’t…  The shops are full of Christmas months before… It’s like rubbing salt into the wound.

There’s the thing. Sometimes I want to run far away from anything remotely seasonal, and sometimes I’m drawn to the twinkly lights and the reminder of hope in a dark world. The bookshops and library shelves are full of those Christmas books you see every year. You know the kind, Chick Lit and cute animal books, mostly. Personally, as an ex cat owner, I’m a sucker for the cute animal books. Lost, unloved animal befriends lonely distressed human and changes their life. I hear there’s a new Cat named Bob book out.  Blue, they’re always blue. And silver. Maybe red. Avoid these displays if need be.

Happy family christmas

Christmas can be a difficult time for the lonely who may feel their isolation more keenly while being inundated with images of perfect happy family life. 

Maybe you want to escape the whole Christmas thing completely. So what do you do? One thing you can do is read… I share an office with the Home Library Service, and there are customers I’ve spoken to over the phone and heard about who will also be alone, and want plenty of books to help get them through.

One thing I absolutely do NOT recommend, and that’s copying my back in the day student self. It was February half term, the middle of a teaching practice (TP) in the most depressing area of Peterborough you can imagine, and I had the flu and some accommodation stress into the bargain. Flu happened with every ‘TP’, without fail… so there I was, checking my post, and my very astute English tutor spied me, bundled up in my fleecy shawl and said “I prescribe you to go to bed and read a thick book of your choice”.

Wise words. But my response was: “But I have my TP file to do….”, like any other teaching undergraduate, struggling with her class, a difficult supervising tutor, and Life. Needless to say, that’s what I did, my TP file, and my flu got worse.

Reading can absolutely make you feel better, whether that’s through escapism or catharsis or deepening your understanding of what you’re going through.

Here are some of my recommendations that cover a variety of tastes and preferences:

The Wool trilogy by Hugh Howey [Wool, Dust, Shift] – Excellent anti-utopia, thought provoking. I’m not into sci-fi as a genre as such, but I really loved these. There is the satisfaction of reading about this whole other world, and looking into how people survived emotionally and physically. You also get to know characters well over the three novels. The final one wasn’t so absorbing. But have a go at Wool for sure.

John IrvingAnything by John Irving – one title is likely enough at a time. I’ve read The World According To Garp, and Last Night In Twisted River, a couple of years apart. Both are surreal enough to take you away from immediate concerns, at the same time as touching something deep.

Call The Midwife – series by Jennifer Worth – or anything similar – human and heart warming.

Letting Go by Emma Woolf – not just for those with Eating Disorders, encouraging and hopeful. I would recommend anything similarly with a focus on ‘healing’ as they’re more gentle than the average self help or workbook, which can be too intense when you’re feeling vulnerable.

A meaty historical epic is always a good bet. Edward Rutherford, Ken Follett et al.

In terms of reading for catharsis, you know what works for you. My 79 year old mother professes to never have cried when reading a book. And she’s read some pretty sad books. She’s more of a book worm than I am. And she’s had more than her fair share of sadness and trauma. I don’t quite get it! I, on the other hand, who have also been through some really tough times, will unashamedly and openly cry from pretty much any kind of book.

lorna doone

Maybe avoid very bleak books at Christmas!

However even I have limits. Some books are just too plain miserable. Lorna Doone. Hope by Lesley Pearse, which is the most devoid of hope book I’ve ever read next to Lorna Doone. And recently, though this didn’t make me cry, In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, by Dan Davies. I actually only made it three-quarters of the way through, as pretty much all you need to know is in the first 100 or so pages. I thought I owed it to myself, being a child of the 70s, to read this. But nope, it’s not my cup of tea. I mean, it opened my eyes to things I’d been blind to as a child and pre-adolescent. However I happened to be emerging from severe Depression when reading it. I came back to work and, after talking with my colleagues about it, which I have to say was an interesting discussion about Jim…I decided that this book needed to be returned, that it was totally NOT the book I needed to be reading right then. So I switched to the latest Casey Watson book. I’m quirky like that.

That saying, I actually do recommend abuse survivor biographies and Cathy Glass and Casey Watson type books for getting through tough times. For me it’s the combination of “I can totally relate to their feelings and behaviours, but their life sounds harder than mine” which can be a therapeutic alchemy.

secret garden

Familiar children’s classics can be comforting reads.

I would recommend having a goodly pile of different types of books that catch your eye and interest. You can borrow 12 books, we’re open most days over the holiday season, and if you reserve items now, they are likely to arrive before the bank holidays. If you have a variety, every mood is covered. Maybe have at least one really chunky read. You might even find you’re drawn to children’s or young adult books, and there’s totally no shame in that, even when you passed young by many years ago. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett could be a good example of this.

This piece is dedicated to all of you out there struggling with the Christmas season, whether you have Depression, struggle around food for whatever reason, live with intense anxiety, have lost someone close, have to spend time with family you don’t get on with for whatever reason, are waiting for medical test results, are out of work or at risk of losing your job, have bad memories of the Christmas season, are going to be alone, have a chronic physical condition that makes every day difficult, are living with domestic violence or other abuse, are in hospital, are working throughout, including those working nights…

I hope that you, wherever you are, find THAT book this December that will reach you and touch you and make your passage through a difficult season gentler and calmer. And please do share it with us if you feel able to, I for one would love to know your stories.


Take care.



Filed under books, Christmas, mental health