Books that portray the reality of mental illness

Emer Handly

Credit: Aoibhín Bryant

The theme of mental illness is no stranger to the literary world. However, in an age where mental illness is often romanticised, it can be hard to find stories that show its complexity and reality. Here are some books that get it right.

 The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming of age story written by Stephen Chbosky, following narrator Charlie in his first year of High School. At times it is very heavy to read as Charlie experiences extreme depression and anxiety. Centred around friendships (positive and toxic), mental illness, substance abuse and sexuality, you will not read another textual representation of adolescence as relatable as this.

“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.”

It’s Kind of a Funny Story Ned Vizzini’s novel revolves around 15-year-old Craig’s experience on a mental health ward. It is a unique tale as most of its characters have a mental illness, not just one. The story depicts the harsh reality of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, self-harm and many other mental illnesses. You will laugh at his cynical humour while wanting to cry at his bleak life, all the while feeling empathetic.

“I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.”


The Bell Jar is an American literary classic written by Sylvia Plath. Plath is known for her heavy poetry about depression and this book follows suit. The semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a young writer struggling with self-destructive behaviours and dark thoughts. It is a brutally honest portrayal of depression. Plath has a way with words, sometimes beautiful, sometimes haunting. Published in 1963, it is a story that still engulfs readers today.

“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”


The Catcher in The Rye – J.D Salinger’s timeless classic portrays how social problems can affect sensitive minds. Teenager Holden Caulfield gets kicked out of school and departs on a strange journey to New York. He is plunged into sadness and daydreams of suicide. He indulges in alcohol, sex, nightclubs, movies and socialising to escape from himself.

“I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”


Wintergirls is a startling novel written by Laurie Halse Anderson. Lia is a teenage girl who learns of her best friend’s suicide and then falls on a downward spiral of anorexia and self-harm. The harsh nature of eating disorders is made painfully clear. It is a powerful, intoxicating story that does not shy away from the truths of mental illness.

“I am spinning the silk threads of my story, weaving the fabric of my world…I spun out of control. Eating was hard. Breathing was hard. Living was hardest.”