BOOKS FOR EMPATHY AND MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS

The goal for this list of portable magic is to make us all feel a little less alone (because you are not alone) in our depression, our anxiety, our lasting traumatic experiences, our mental health struggles. When you read one of the books on this list, the intended impact is to foster mental health awareness and to bring us a little bit closer to empathy (stories are empathy machines after all), so we are better equipped to inspire mental health awareness and empathy in our loved ones—our friends, our family, our fellow humans—as we love and cry and laugh and exist together on this overwhelming and awe inspiring pale blue dot.

Note: This list is a continual work-in-progress, so if you'd like to add to it, scroll down and fill out the form!


Meet The Book Nerds Behind This List

Hi, I'm Non, doggo lover, vociferous shorts-wearer, and creator/host of You, Me, Empathy.

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I love books. Like really love books. Reading is an integral part of my own mental health journey. Relating to characters whose story is similar to mine, or escaping a real-world darkness to discover a magical wonderland (I even got a tattoo that depicts this escape) or even just the solemnity of the practice of reading—these are perspective-shifting, life-affirming experiences a good book can create for each of us, as they have for me.

Hi, I'm Bethanne.

Want to Add to this list? Share your book with us!

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Young Adult

 
 

All the bright places by Jennifer niven

Jennifer Niven's All The Bright Places is not just a love story about two high schoolers we can, however old we are, relate strongly to. It's a profession of love for the small things in this world and within each of us. It's a love story for the brights of light, and the pits of darkness. It's a celebration of wholeheartedness. And it treats mental illness with respect and with grace.


if I stay by gayle forman

A simple, but beautifully written story about one aspect of life that we all face, no matter how much we fight it: choice. We have choices to make. Some inconsequential. Some easy. Some difficult. Some terrifying. In If I Stay, Mia has to make a choice between life and death, between a knowable, joyous past and a unknowable, blank future. It's worth finding out why.


the perks of being a wallflower by stephen chbosky

Stephen Chbosky's coming-of-age novel extends beyond the pains of adolescence and stays with the misfits like an understanding security blanket. The imagery can be quite triggering but for so many who identify with the character struggles, the simple truth, "we accept the love we think we deserve," is acknowledgement enough to open a door for healing. As an abuse survivor, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is always there in my heart reminding me that I am not alone and life is worth all the living. (Reviewed by Jessica Broughton.)


turtles all the way down by john green

Turtles All The Way Down opens with sixteen-year-old Aza being egged on by her best friend to search for clues concerning the mysterious disappearance of Aza's childhood friend's father, in order to collect a sizable reward. However, the more compelling mystery in this book is the constant tumult that is raging insider her brain. TATWD takes the reader inside of Aza's debilitating obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and forces them to feel and empathize with the anxiety and helplessness that she walks through each moment of every day. (Reviewed by Jennifer Turner.)


stick by Andrew smith

The characters Andrew Smith creates are me, they are you, they are each of us. We know this world. It’s here, it’s there. It’s us and it’s those people there. It’s a world in which people exist as unique individuals, journeying to find out what it means to overcome, what it means to glean, what it means to live. Readers, Stick is the type of book we live for. It is the human experience. In these words and these characters, we learn and we relate and we love.
 


It's Kind of a funny story by ned vizzini

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finding audrey by sophie kinsella

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my heart and other black holes by jasmine warga

Jasmine Warga’s My Heart and Other Black Holes leans heavily on the classic boy-meets-girl trope, but it’s the girl who meets the boy, and instead of one losing the other, they’re both at risk to lose everything. The plot involves a suicide pact, which can be a cheap trick when it comes to storytelling, but the treatment of the subject matter here is honest and sincere. You’ll come away feeling what is very much implied by the title — that our hearts are black holes, massive and inescapable. And thank the heavens for that. (Reviewed by Norm Leonard.)


memoir

 

darkness visible by william styron

I first read William Styron’s Darkness Visible in college, some 25-plus years ago. At a time when no one else was writing or even talking about debilitating depression and suicide,  Styron courageously opened up about his own harrowing experiences with the disease. And he was one of the first that I had heard of who acknowledged depression as a disease—not a stigma to be ashamed of. At the height of his career and accolades, he fell into the darkest depths of despair. But he fought his way, tooth and claw, out of those depths with the help and understanding of a doctor who saw, like Styron, that this was a disease to be treated, not a weakness to be shunned or ignored. Beautifully written, gut-wrenching, horrible, at times so incredibly sad, and in the end hopeful. It gave me a better window into loved ones in my life who have also struggled—and sometimes have lost their battle—with this disease. I will always remember this book and what it taught me. (Reviewed by Patricia Fitzgerald.)


an unquiet mind by kay redfield jamison

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this close to happy by daphne merkin

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Half in love by linda gray sexton

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furiously happy by jenny lawson

Furiously Happy is what we all should be aiming for, because, as Jenny Lawson so beautifully and rip-roaringly explains, it's a place of recognizing both the awe and fucked-up-ness of this world of ours.


the year of magical thinking by joan didion

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acedia and me by Kathleen norris

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where is the mango princess? by cathy crimmins

Where is the Mango Princess? A Journey Back from Brain Injury by Cathy Crimmins is an engaging, touching, and heartfelt true story about Cathy’s husband who suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and the impacts that this accident had on him, her, and his family. She highlights what happens due to TBI, including the personality changes that occur to the injured person and family members’ new challenges and roles. Cathy’s story telling is so personal that you feel like she is a dear friend telling you about her life. She uses humor to balance out the “trauma” part of the brain injury, and takes you on a ride of hope, healing, loss, and coping. (Reviewed by Kerry Luke.)


Hyperbole and a half by allie brosh

Have you ever tried to perfectly capture debilitating anxiety and depression and inescapable human neurosis into cartoon form? That's what Allie Brosh has been able to do with Hyperbole and a Half, her graphic memoir named after her long-running (but no longer, sad day) blog. It's rollicking and hilarious and heartbreaking and you'll think aloud, "oh, my god that's totally me!" If there's a book that speaks to the power of you are not alone, it's this one.


fun home by alison bechdel

Fun Home is tragic in the sense that there is suffering in discovering our identities in a world that isn't quite yet ready or accepting of them. Alison Bechdel's story is, yes, at times tragic and heartbreaking, but it's more than that. It's a coming-of-age tale, fraught with the beautiful angst and growing pain of a human experience. The narrative is so rich and infused with such charm and wit and honesty and tenderness, you almost yearn to travel back in time to be there for little Alison, a shoulder to lean on, a friend to doodle with.


marbles by ellen forney

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lighter than my shadow by katie green

Remarkably and courageously told, Lighter Than My Shadow is a raw and gorgeous and often heartbreaking depiction of the mental anguish, physical suffering, and emotional reverberations of living with an eating disorder. The graphical representation of anorexia is both jarring and stunning, and the coming-of-age element to the narrative is one that we all will find peace and empathy within. 


Non-Fiction

 

after birth by elise albert

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zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a phenomenon in the 1970s, and helped usher in the age of "Self-Help" books. But it's also an examination of our most basic questions, such as: what does it mean to be "good"? And it shows us a journey into—and apparently out of—mental illness, as described in 1970s terms.

Reading this, you will question things you've never questioned before. You will learn a tiny bit of motorcycle maintenance, a bit of zen, and you'll never be quite sure what "quality" means ever again. (Reviewed by Jeff Wagg.)


molecules of emotion by candace b. pert, ph.d.

This book, for me, has been responsible for many A-HA! Moments. The idea of the Mind-Body connection has often been associated with attributes of all things “woowoo”, spiritual but intangible and invalid. Candace Pert’s deep dive into the science behind the way our thoughts impact our physical health will make you a believer, if you aren’t one already. She does a great job of introducing the reader to the basics of the biochemicals of emotion before she takes you on a wild ride into our brains and beautiful bodies. (I would also recommend a similar book called The Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D.) (Reviewed by Tina Cufaro.)


A mind of your own by kelly brogan, md.

This is truly a groundbreaking, science-based, and holistic approach to women’s mental health. Dr. Brogan tackles and challenges the long-held beliefs and practices of physicians who default to the use of psychotropic medications as the first line of defense (or perhaps offense) when patients are experiencing anything from grief to PMS to panic attacks to insomnia. She posits that depression and similar conditions are symptoms of other physiological issues. These root causes should be approached through dietary intervention, targeted nutrient support and lifestyle alterations. This book by Dr. Brogan is actually the driving force behind the direction that I have taken my own practice. It’s a remarkable and enlightening book. This is a must read for every woman and for every man that loves them. (Reviewed by Tina Cufaro.)


the anti-anxiety food solution by trudy scott, cn.

More and more research is proving the incredible impact that foods and nutrients have on our mental health. Nutrient deficiencies, “bad” fats, sugar consumption, food sensitivities, processed and take-out foods and so much more, play vital roles in the brain’s way of thinking and how we actually feel emotionally . . . especially when it comes to that plaguing anxiety. It is such an easy read that’s packed with information. Beginning with Trudy’s own experience with anxiety, she leads the reader through the possible causes of anxiety, some known and others, not so well-known, to brain chemistry, amino-acid therapy, hormones and toxins. She also includes questionnaires that the reader can fill out to help self-evaluate. This book is such a helpful tool for those who haven’t been able to find the “secret sauce” to eliminate or reduce their anxiety troubles. It’s honestly real food for thought. (Reviewed by Tina Cufaro.)


the body keeps the score by bessel van derk kolk, MD

The Body Keeps the Score explores the idea that we as humans hold trauma in our physical bodies. Bessel van der Kolk started his career working with post-Vietnam war veterans to treat their PTSD, and one of his findings is that talking over and over again about our trauma (like in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) may not be the best approach to truly treat the trauma. So, in this book, he masterfully explores the mind-body connection and body-based therapies like yoga and meditation as more thorough treatments of trauma, PTSD, depression, and anxiety.