Reading is the main way I cope with difficult mental health days (weeks, months...). This typically falls in a few categories: finding something distracting and quick to read, funneling all my feelings into books that are as "sad" as I am, or facing my brain head-on (pun intended) with a book directly about mental health and illness.
What I discovered making this list is that I don't read a lot of light-hearted, funny books. Even ones that aren't really about mental health all seem to have a thread of more somber issues. Most of my books mix heavy topics and funny banter into whatever the actual plot is.
Since I don't read books where the main idea is to be humorous and cute, my "avoid it" section was the most difficult to fill. But the books I chose are fun and funny little reads. I'd like to find more books like the Riley Thorn series, in particular.
So here are some books to help. Split into "avoid" your mental health, "feel" your mental health, and "face" your mental health. Happy (*wink*) reading!
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
This is a spin-off of Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. The main character in Fangirl is actually writing Carry On as fanfiction of a book series that exists in the Fangirl world. Confusing, I know. But Carry On is the story of two teenage mages thrust together in a magical boarding school. Even though they're enemies, they're forced to room together, pinned by a magical contract that means they'll be expelled if their hurt each other within those walls. With their forced proximity comes revealed secrets and shared dangers.
Riley Thorn and the Dead Guy Next Door by Lucy Score
Riley is divorced, broke, and living in a house teaming with cooky, elderly roommates. What's worse? Her mother is a tarot reader and claims that Riley's hallucinations are psychic visions... Staunchly refuting that stance, Riley wants as close to normal as she can get. But when she sees the neighbor across the hall get murdered... before it actually happens... maybe Riley has to acknowledge that she's a little more than normal. Especially when cute detective Nick comes knocking, demanding to know how Riley knew the murder was coming.
In Deeper Waters by F.T. Lukens
A hidden prince with a legacy of genocide, a sole-survivor mermaid (merman?) locked up on a pirate ship... sounds pretty dark, but it's written with a YA/middle grade tone and filled with nervous, charming, coming-of-age teenage boys who are trying to find and fix their pasts. The prince? Sequestered to hide that he inherited the magic of his genocidal grandfather.
The merman? Separated from his family and hiding his heritage and abilities.
Together, they travel across the country to stop a war, protect their families, and find where they fit in a world where they're different.
A Little Bit Country by Brian D. Kennedy
Two boys caught up in the history of rival country music singers meet while working at a Dollywood-inspired theme park. Emmitt eagerly takes a job at the park, singing and dancing in one of their stage shows. Luke, on the other hand, isn't supposed to even mention country music - not after his grandma died after a scandal that left her shunned by the country music community. But Luke's family needs the money, so he schleps through the park unhappily every day... until he Emmitt. Someone so open and different from himself.
This Savage Song by VE Schwab
Like the other books on this list, This Savage Song, doesn't directly deal with mental health issues. But it's one that touches on identity, survival, and life moving forward. In this world, "monsters" are created by horrible acts of violence. August was created by murder, and he grapples with that as he learns what it means to be himself, something not human but desperate in the same way humans are.
This is one of my favorite books, and I don't want to explain it any more than that, so pick it up and read it.
The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons
This is a historical novel about WWII, particularly when the Germans invade the Soviet Union. It follows the impossible life and survival of Tatiana Metanova, who turns eighteen on the day that the Germans turn toward Leningrad. On that same day, Tatiana meets Alexander, a Russian soldier who becomes one of the most influential and important people in her life. Alexander ensures that Tatiana has something to live for, even as they both lose everything.
Beach Read by Emily Henry
There's a lyric from a Twenty One Pilots' song that says "listen, I know this one is a contradiction because of how happy it sounds / but the lyrics are so down," and that's how I feel about this book's title versus its content. This one is about two very different writers who end up living next door to each on a lake. Struck by writer's block with deadlines looming, Augustus and January swap takes. She'll write a deep, broody book of literary fiction and he'll tackle a romance. In order to pull this off they plan outings to get the other inspired.
This book isn't particularly sad, but it's not a beach read. It delves into serious topics, and I was really surprised and in love with it.
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
A lot of Stiefvater's books have this same "fog over a dark, frozen river in winter" vibe. Shiver is the very first Stiefvater book I ever read, and I've loved them all since. Sam is a young boy who's caught between two lives. His own solitary life as a human, and the quiet protection of his pack as a wolf. Forced to shift between them, he watches a young woman from the woods. Living on the edge of the woods, Grace has always heard the wolves. Even after being dragged off her swing set as a child, Grace feels a communion with them. Particularly the yellow-eyed wolf who saved her life. But when she comes home to find a freezing, shaggy-haired, yellow-eyed teenage boy on her porch, she starts to understand the intelligence, melancholy, and longing that's filled Sam's life.
It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
This is the fictional story of a teenage boy who's never admitted his mental illness to anyone. Unable to shatter his mother's view of him, Craig leaves home unannounced and checks himself into a mental hospital where he has to spend five days with mentally-ill adults. This book has always meant a lot to me because of Ned Vizzini's personal story. He struggled with mental illness his entire life, writing books -- this book -- for people who are afraid to admit there's something wrong and obliterate their lives. Vizzini ended his life seven years after writing this book. It's a poignant reminder that clarity and coping come and go. That the stigma and symptoms of mental illness don't undermine the worth of your life.
That's Mental by Amanda Rosenberg
That's Mental is a memoir that explains Rosenberg's experience with Bipolar II disorder. She's humorous and off-beat, willing to say the kinds of things that only mentally ill people really find funny. She talks about the divide between those with mental illness and those without, and how little platitudes like "reach out if you need to" really mean nothing when you can't even take a shower, let alone explain everything to someone. Rosenberg doesn't wrap mental illness up in a bow, in fact, she makes it clear that none of us know what we're doing at the end of the day. But we're here, and we're trying, and we're finding the humor in fighting our brains.
It Didn't Start With You by Mark Wolynn
This one is more clinical and scientific look at "inherited trauma." It traces how mood and personality disorders could be passed down through generations, genetically but also socially. It's about how trauma affects generations of family members, even if the original person who experienced the trauma has been dead for generations. It's something that I really believe is possible. There are traumas our ancestors faced that still impact us today. Traumas we might not even know about that play a role in who we are and how we react to the world.
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
Like It's Kind of A Funny Story, this is another author writing about mental health. Except this is a memoir, not fiction. Matt Haig is a best-selling author, likely most well-known for The Midnight Library. This book talks about Haig's suicide attempt in his twenties, and how his life progressed from there. This is a really optimistic book, very much a foil of Vizzini's life. Personally, I felt more moved by Vizzini's story, but I can appreciate what Haig's trying to do. The hope he's trying to give other people. If you're struggling and want someone to show (rather than tell) you "it gets better," this is a good place to start.
Something I really wish I could include on this list is more books about grief. I've found that a lot of quotes about grief really resonated with me, but most books are about losing parents, friends, or children. I wish there were more books for people who lost siblings - there's really nothing out there. Since that's something that's messed with my mental health the most, I wish I had at least one book to share with others.