Books that spark a conversation about mental health
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but it’s worth checking in with how you’re feeling every month of the year. The personal stories and compelling science found in the below books will inspire discussion—and hopefully provide more compassion and insight into how the mind and body are connected.
“The most compelling thing about What My Bones Know, and the thing that makes it a story that will inspire anyone who reads it, is that it’s a reminder of the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit,” wrote my colleague Erin Kodicek of this incredible book, which is part memoir, part instructional guide on how to move past painful memories and be present, in the present. Stephanie Foo had a horrifying childhood. As an adult, she rebuilds her life into a success story—she has a big job at NPR, an apartment in NYC, a loving boyfriend. But the past still haunts her. When she’s diagnosed with complex-PTSD, a condition that impacts people who experience trauma over a sustained period of time, she goes on a journey to try to heal herself. Even if you haven’t faced trauma on Foo’s level, you’ll find takeaways from her experience—especially two years into this pandemic.
This book opens with Winfrey sharing a devastating story about being beaten by her grandmother at age three. What follows is a conversation that is sometimes painful, but always enlightening, between Winfrey and her co-author Perry. That back-and-forth is what made this book special to me: as Winfrey shares her experience, or the experience of another, the doctor puts into perspective how that memory impacts the body, how the brain functions, and how to move forward into a healthier mental health space. It’s like listening into a therapy session, with helpful illustrations sprinkled in to keep the science very accessible. While I prefer the written word, a friend recommended this as an audiobook so that the conversation really comes to life—which Oprah fans may especially enjoy. But even if you’re not a fan of the iconic talk-show host, this book’s story of finding acceptance and strength is relatable to all.
Soffer accomplished a rare feat with her first book, Modern Loss: it’s about grief, but it’s not depressing. Yes, there were sad parts. But plenty of sections made me laugh, and the whole thing made me reflect on what it means to be alive. Now she’s back with a more hands-on follow-up, a workbook packed with thought exercises and journaling prompts to help you take steps forward after experiencing loss, which so many of us have in varying degrees over the past two years of the pandemic. Soffer was inspired to change the conversation about grief after both her parents died unexpectedly within a few years when she was in her thirties—and she couldn’t find anything that spoke to her with “warmth, encouragement, and casual realness about this messy ride.” She accomplishes this by avoiding cliché platitudes and cringey thoughts sprinkled on her pages.
This book has been on the best seller list since its 2014 release, making it the standard-bearer when people want to talk about overcoming adversity. van der Kolk breaks down how trauma isn’t just about our feelings—it can have real ramifications on the way our body functions. Experiencing traumatic events—whether in combat as a soldier, or as an abused child, or during a scary car crash—can open up somebody to a host of health issues. After connecting the brain to the body, van der Kolk then explains various therapeutic methods to resolve both mental and physical maladies connected to trauma. It took me three tries to read this book due to its intensity—but I’m so glad I pushed through, because it gave me the tools to reckon with the harder moments in life. It’s a deep look into why it’s not so easy to just move on after a traumatic episode, both mentally and physically.
The Deepest Well takes many of the concepts van der Kolk introduces in The Body Keeps the Score one step further, especially as they apply to children. For anyone grappling with an unsettling experience from their childhood, and how it may impact them as an adult, this book will provide much-needed clarity— and the language to describe the way you feel. Harris is a pioneering researcher into “adverse childhood experiences,” such as abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, which are used to assign an “ACE Score.” (For example, your ACE Score is 1 if your parents are divorced.) The higher your ACE Score, the more likely you are to have behavioral or health issues manifest in different ways—a situation Harris saw all too often as a pediatrician. The good news is there are methods to counteract the negative impacts of ACE Scores, which should be reassuring for anyone who has faced hardships—which is nearly all of us.
There are two truths in Daniel Bergner’s new book, The Mind and the Moon: science is miraculous, but it can be flawed. Treatments for our medical maladies are a work in progress—especially when they involve the brain, which is still too powerful to be fully understood today. Bergner does a beautiful job humanizing those who suffer from severe mental health issues through sharing three people’s struggles, including those of his brother. I was drawn to this empathetic lens, which is rare in a society that still stigmatizes depression, anxiety, and the full spectrum of mental health disorders that are growing as we grapple with the challenges of COVID-19. He draws a compelling line between the days of an ice pick to the eye socket in a lobotomy van to today’s fallout from little-studied drug side effects—including a $3 billion settlement Johnson & Johnson paid out for a drug targeted to children. Fans of Hidden Valley Road, Empire of Pain, and those wishing to better understand the human psyche, will find plenty of new information here. For the many of us who enjoyed Cain’s 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, the question of what she’d write next has lingered. Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole seems like a natural follow up, and it will have just as powerful an effect on readers. It turns out that sadness is the heart of compassion, and compassion is the heart of being human. Cain describes how sorrow and longing are adaptive traits with benefits that far outweigh the suffering they put us through. And they aren’t just human qualities. In fact, sorrow is on par with functions like digestion and breathing—it’s part of the mechanics of living. Through research and stories, Cain takes us through a journey of understanding, and Bittersweet will be a timely and welcome read for so many. It will help a lot of people to process how they are feeling—indeed, how we all feel sometimes. —Chris Schluep, Amazon Editor