BOOKS FOR EMPATHY AND MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS
Happy Mental Health Awareness Month! 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 lasting traumatic experiences, our mental health struggles, our journey on this pale blue dot. 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 as the beautiful feely humans we are. Plus, the best part: this list is alive and growing and you can contribute your favorite books too!
This list is a continual work-in-progress. I intentionally launched it with just a few choice books, so there’s plenty of room for you to add to the list. Scroll down and fill out the form!
Meet The Book Nerd Behind This List
Hi, I'm Non, doggo lover, vociferous shorts-wearer, and creator & host of the You, Me, Empathy podcast. 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.
Some of my favorite books for mental health awareness and empathy are not “mental health books” but stories that have allowed me a moment reprieve from the darkness, stories that transcend reality, and just pure joy. Books like Where The Red Fern Grows, The Trick is To Keep Breathing, and Bastard Out of Carolina. (Darn, I need to add all of these still!)
And some, like The Body Keeps the Score, are just mind-blowing. You’ll notice, in the reviews below, that they aren’t all mine. Yours could be featured too :D (Oh, and P.S., most links below are affiliate links. So if you purchase through the link, I get a few cents.)
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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.
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.)
How Being Stubborn, Depressed, and Unpopular SAVED my Life by jenipher lyn
This world is very hard place to be. With buzzes all around us telling us we're just not good enough, we could all use more encouragement! To remedy this, I wrote a super honest, encouraging, vibrant book with the intent to help others (especially teens). feel less alone in this world. By using my story, and lots of colorful illustrations, I want others to realize they aren't alone on those dark, lowest of low days. This is pretty much the book I WISH I had growing up! (Shared by the author.)
find your rainbow by jenipher lyn
Find Your Rainbow is a full color guide and activity book full of interactive and positive ways for young readers to work through issues including self-esteem, positive thinking, and even bullying. With colorful illustrations and my personal stories, this is a must for any young woman in the world!
First We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
It was a very interesting book, and what it did for me . . . the only way I can describe it is it normalized my anxiety. It helped me accept my anxiety and not constantly fight it. It was a good blend of brain science and personal memoir. (Reviewed by Elisa McGuire.)
Just peachy by holly chisholm
Holly Chisholm is the creator of the wondrous and insightful comic series on Instagram @justpeachycomic. She’s also a previous guest of You, Me, Empathy! I haven’t yet read this collection of Holly’s, but if it’s anything like what she shares on Instagram, I know it’s worth jumping into. Holly is a feely human whose vulnerability and ability to create levity in the darkness is admirable.
little panic by amanda stern
If you want to feel seen in your anxiety, and less alone in your heart, read Amanda Stern’s Little Panic. The book explores Amanda’s experience growing up with an undiagnosed (and unmedicated!) panic disorder. It might actually make you feel anxious reading it, but I’ll tell you it’s so worth it. Amanda is a beautiful writer, and one that should be supported with all of your feely heart. Amanda talked about Little Panic on episode 75 of You, Me, Empathy.
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)
No happy endings by nora mcinerny
To call this book a “delight” is maybe weird considering it’s a book about grief and loss but again it’s also about levity in the darkness and the joy of Target and just how gosh darn funny it is when someone falls down unexpectedly. I’m sorry okay, but this book, like the author herself, is a DELIGHT through and through. Love love love. If you aren’t following Nora and listening to her podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, you need to!
Everything is horrible and wonderful by stephanie wittels wachs
Everything is horrible and wonderful! This extraordinary book is Stephanie Wittels Wachs’s love letter to her late brother, Harris Wittels, who died of a drug overdose. At times it’s hard to read, so achingly resonant. At times, it’ll make you giggle uncontrollably. In the end it’s a beautiful, moving tribute to the brightness in each of us, and the struggle that makes us human.
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. It’s an acceptance of the ebbs and flows, the brights and darks, the joys and the sorrows. And it’s told with raccoons and taxidermied critters as companions. So that’s a win.
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
I have a few dear friends who have Bipolar Disorder. This lovely and hilarious book by Ellen Forney illuminated so much for me, allowing me to better understand and engage with those friends. She’s so vulnerable about her struggles, her manic-fueled creativity, her coming to terms with her struggle. If you are coming to terms with your mental illness, this graphic novel is a perfect guide.
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.
100 obscure emotions by rukmini poddar
In an effort to explore the complicated, sometimes odd, flummoxing emotions we humans experience, Rukmini Poddar created 100 Obscure Emotions—a book of illustrations that challenges the reader to explore their own obscure emotions. It’s emotional! And fun! And beautiful to look! And Rukmini was a guest on You, Me, Empathy!
daring greatly by brené Brown
This is my first and only book I’ve read believe it or not! I feel shame for that. Actually, no! No, I don’t feel shame. As Brené has shown me in Daring Greatly, building shame resilience is a huge part of how we can be better in the way we connect, lead, and love. I am trying to be more daring, and it’s thanks to the remarkable Brené for that.
zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance by robert pirsig
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.
How to be alone by lane moore
Oh gosh this book. I listened to the author read the audiobook and the fondness she uses to talk about her younger self is heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once. Lane talks about growing up alone, emotionally, and sometimes literally. I had to listen to it in short chunks because there were bits that took my breath away. I loved it. (Reviewed by Gem Hill)