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It's complicated

by Emma R | Dec 28, 2016

There’s an entire month devoted to mental illness awareness. But mental illness — unlike, sometimes, mental illness awareness — lasts all year. 

Buzzfeed recently put out a list of Young Adult literature dealing with mental illness.  For those of you who want something a little darker or more complex, here’s a list of books featuring characters who struggle with recognizable (and sometimes not-so-recognizable) mental illnesses.

Yellow Wallpaper
The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

When the narrator’s depression is treated by being spirited away into the isolated countryside, she insists to her husband that, at the very least, she doesn’t want to be in the room with the strange yellow wallpaper. But when her husband refuses to move her, and she spends more time in the room, she finds that the wallpaper is not as frightening as it used to be; the reader may not agree.  
 Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. The prince of Denmark gets pulled from school to attend his father’s funeral…and his mother’s remarriage to his uncle. Add the ghost of his deceased father and what looks like some majorly undiagnosed depression to the mix, and Hamlet’s life gets turned topsy turvy as he tries to avenge his father, talk sense to his mother, and grapple with his growing emotional turmoil.
 Richard III
 Richard III, by William Shakespeare. Richard III is … not the boy next door, to put it bluntly. And when war in England ends and Richard has to face navigating a world of peace where — he tells himself — he is hated, he decides to take matters into his own hands and get the war starting up again (and if he becomes king in the process, that’s just a perk, right?). Richard’s journey of self-loathing leads the reader into a political and emotional drama that will make picking sides harder than it looks.
 Last Report
 The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich. An environmental disaster ends with a young woman who doesn’t remember who she is. When she gets her hands on a dead priest’s garb, she figures any identity is better than nothing and takes the deceased man’s place as a missionary in Indian society. And never leaves. Watch a case of stolen identity become a case of mistaken identity in this page-turner of a novel!
 Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. When young Dorian Gray begs the painter of his portrait to let him take the hauntingly beautiful painting of himself home, he was just succumbing to a bit of vanity, right? Years down the line, Dorian Gray is as young and beautiful as ever … but his portrait is not. Readers will be entranced by the wide variety of emotional struggles that Dorian Gray must face …and they will be horrified by the ways in which he faces them.


One of the beautiful things about literature is the fact that it can speak to the human heart. As someone who has struggled with depression and self-esteem, Hamlet and Richard III — both featured on this list — have spoken very deeply to me.  I hope that something on this list will speak deeply to those who need to be deeply spoken to.

If fiction isn’t giving the help you need, remember that self-help materials for mental illnesses of all kinds are available at ACPL and other libraries, and immediate help is available to all via various hotlines.

Emma did a complete 180 late in high school, abandoning dreams of a degree in Music Performance to pursue a degree in English Literature. She finished her B.A. in December 2015, and now she’s working on her MLS while working in Material Support Services. When she’s not working at the library or on her degree, she spends time with her parents, her siblings, her boyfriend, and her two cats.

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