Mental illness takes many dark forms. For those of us who struggle with mental illness, we know the debilitating effects it can have on everyday life. But we can find consolation in a community of similar experiences. For some, this looks like support networks or group therapy. For others, it’s connecting with the characters in our favourite books. And with Mental Illness Awareness Week fast approaching, from October 4to October 10, we’ve collected six must-read stories that explore mental health and its existence in our worlds.
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- Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a short story about Gregor Samsa, a salesman who wakes up one day to find he’s transformed into a giant bug. Although Gregor is in this strangely tragic situation, he worries about nothing else besides getting to work on time and financially supporting his family. And once his family discovers his current state, they go into a panic and Gregor becomes isolated and alienated in his own home. Throughout the story, Gregor’s character deteriorates from a hopeful man to one steeped in feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and self-loathing.
Kafka’s conflicts within his personal life undoubtedly leaked into his writing; his strained relationship with his parents and his melancholic nature led him to express his deepest worries and emotions in this story.
- 72-Hour Hold by Bebe Moore Campbell
This novel follows Keri and her 18-year-old daughter Trina, whose bipolar disorder has made her paranoid and aggressive. Keri becomes desperate to help her daughter but finds that her only option is placing Trina on a 72-hour hold, after which she’ll be released right back to where she started. Determined to get her daughter the treatment she needs, Keri discovers an illegal intervention known as The Program. Based on the Underground Railroad, The Program offers secret locations for psychiatrists to forego holding periods and involuntarily treat individuals with severe mental illness. But soon, this experience forces Keri to face a past that’s been buried deep.
Campbell was a Black novelist and teacher who focused on race relations and mental illness in her writing. Mental illness is often hidden behind closed doors within BIPOC communities. Campbell fearlessly confronts it in her novel.
- Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Ada was prayed into existence by her parents. As a baby, she was the source of their worries, and as she got older, she only became more volatile. It’s clear to both her parents and the reader that something is amiss with Ada. After turning eighteen, Ada moves from her home in Nigeria to America for college. Soon, a group of alternate selves form in her mind and, after she experiences a traumatic assault, these selves take centre stage while Ada slips away into the background.
Born in Nigeria, Emezi is both an artist and writer who aims to create a space for LGBTQ2S+ characters in literature. They wrote Freshwater based on their own experiences, shaped into a fictional world.
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Mary Katherine Blackwood, or “Merricat,” lives with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian in a sprawling estate. The three are the remaining members of the Blackwood family; the others were murdered six years ago. The village is convinced that Constance is the murderer who got away and, as a result, the three confine themselves at home, being treated as outsiders. Soon, their routines are interrupted with the arrival of Charles, an estranged cousin. Merricat finds herself resentful toward Charles because of the close friendship he forms with her sister. As the novel unravels, we see how Merricat acts on her feelings toward Charles, and the story begins to take an unsettling turn.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s last novel among a catalogue of horror masterpieces, this book being no exception.
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye follows Holden Caulfield, a troubled teenage boy at a treatment facility, who guides us through his tough experiences last Christmas wandering New York City’s streets. Through his late-night journey, Holden recounts his life in an isolating and detached manner. His attempts to connect with others often result in awkward conversations and more alienation.
Salinger places the story sometime in the 1950s. This is a crucial preface to consider as it displays both how Holden’s character, with his swearing and declarations of phoniness, was seen as rebellious and also made the novel rebellious for how freely it claimed these themes.
- Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa
Khalifa is a Syrian novelist who sets this story within his own country’s civil war. After Abdel Latifa dies peacefully in Damascus, three siblings—Bolbol, Hussein, and Fatima—must travel through their war-torn country to fulfill their father’s last wish: To be buried in their ancestral village. Although the three siblings have become estranged for many years, their father’s death forces them to reconcile with each other. The state of Syria adds its own challenges for the three, as the terrain is destroyed by violence and fear.
Having lived in Damascus for twenty years, Khalifa writes on first-hand knowledge, resulting in a beautifully sorrowful novel.
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Books are an escape from reality. They help us find comfort with the struggles we face and, to be frank, fill our minds with characters and adventures to ease the loneliness we’ve all felt at one time or another.
Although mental illness in Canada is being recognized during this one week, we must keep it in our minds at all times. Reach out to each other. Talk to each other. Ensure the people in your life know you’re there for them and ensure that you have those same supports.
For anyone who feels they are struggling and need to reach out, here is a list of helpful resources. UTM also offers My Student Support Program (MySSP), a free 24/7 support system for students facing school, health, or general life concerns.