Analysing mental health in literature: From fiction and self-help books

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Have you ever found yourself utterly captivated by a novel, feeling every emotion of the protagonist? Or perhaps you have picked up a self-help book and felt a spark of hope or a sudden revelation? That’s the magic of literature! While fiction can take us on an emotional rollercoaster through the characters’ minds, self-help books can serve as our personal guides through life’s obstacles.

By exploring the intriguing realm of mental health through the lens of literature, we can better understand the insights and support these books can provide and how they contribute to the broader mental health conversation.

Pile of books

Iconic novels and their depictions of mental health

The best novels have always had the uncanny ability to take us into the minds of their characters, making us privy to their innermost thoughts, desires and fears. Within the pages of two of the world’s most revered novels, we find intricate portrayals of mental health, providing invaluable insights into the human condition.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger…

At its core, Salinger’s masterpiece is a profound exploration of the main character, Holden Caulfield’s mental state. As readers navigate the maze of Holden’s mind, they are thrust into a world marred by grief, alienation and profound loneliness. The traumatic loss of his younger brother, Allie, has left a particularly indelible mark on Holden’s psyche, and his frequent recollections of Allie – from writing in Allie’s favourite green ink to the red hair he often reminisces about – highlight his unresolved grief and the effect it is having on his mental health.

Throughout the novel, we also witness Holden’s intermittent emotional breakdowns. These include crying inexplicably in the streets of New York and his panicked plea to his younger sister, Phoebe when he fears he might disappear as he steps into the street. These moments hint at a deeper, underlying mental distress and may be symptoms of depression or, as is most often concluded, post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by his brother’s death.

PTSD illustration

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath…

Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, stands as one of literature’s most vivid portrayals of mental struggles. Set in 1950s America, the narrative delves deep into Esther’s descent into depression, capturing the suffocating weight of societal expectations and the pressure to fit prescribed moulds.

Esther’s struggles with identity, gender roles and the limitations imposed upon her as a young woman in a patriarchal society are intricately intertwined with her mental decline. Her failed attempts at finding a suitable career path, the pressure of maintaining a facade of perfection and a series of disheartening romantic encounters contribute to her feelings of detachment and despair.

As Esther’s mental state deteriorates, readers witness her grappling with suicidal ideation, institutionalisation and electroconvulsive therapy, a raw and unfiltered look into the realities of mental health treatment of the era.

Woman from 1950 experiencing depression

Fiction’s role in fostering empathy and understanding

Literature, particularly fiction, is uniquely powerful in building bridges between varied human experiences. By walking in the shoes of fictional characters, readers can gain firsthand insight into lives and struggles they may never encounter or even find a character who is going through the same things that they are.

For example, The Catcher in the Rye can show teenage readers that feelings of angst, alienation and confusion are not unique to them. We all know how difficult teenage years can be, so finding a character whose thoughts and experiences mirror our own can be very reassuring. Similarly, young women can find solace in Esther Greenwood’s struggles, understanding that battles with societal expectations and self-worth have been going on for generations. The narrative offers an intimate look into Esther’s deteriorating mental well-being, which can demystify the often abstract concept of depression, making it more relatable.

The portrayals of both Holden and Esther also challenge the often one-dimensional stereotypes associated with these conditions. They are not caricatures of depression or anxiety but complex and multifaceted creations whose identities are not defined by mental health struggles. The books dismantle the stigma attached to mental health by presenting such holistic portrayals, fostering more empathetic and informed views of those needing help.

Self-help books: Guides to personal growth and understanding

While fiction immerses readers in characters’ experiences, self-help books approach mental health with an instructional lens. Over the years, the self-help genre has exploded in popularity, providing readers with actionable steps and insights to navigate the complexities of life. Some of the most renowned self-help books include:

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey…

This book, lauded for its universality, breaks down seven habits that lead to personal and interpersonal success. Covey delves into principles like proactive thinking, envisioning end goals and synergising personal energies. For many, it is a guide to improving efficiency, mental clarity, and focus.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie…

This timeless classic provides readers actionable steps to improve their communication skills and relationships. Carnegie’s principles often align with cognitive behavioural therapy techniques, encouraging positive social interactions crucial for mental well-being.

CBT therapy session

The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle…

A modern spiritual classic that delves into the concept of living in the present moment. Tolle’s insights about transcending past traumas and anxieties about the future have made it a go-to for those grappling with anxiety, stress, grief and addiction.

By addressing specific issues in a straightforward, relatable and actionable manner, these self-books have allowed millions of readers to participate in their healing and growth process actively. They have empowered people worldwide with the tools and techniques needed to combat mental health challenges, gain new insights into themselves and the world and improve their overall quality of life.

The double-edged sword: Self-diagnosis and treatment

However, it is essential to note that while many people find genuine help and solace in self-help books, there is also a risk of misinterpreting advice or using these resources as a replacement for professional care.

The accessibility and ubiquity of self-help books have made them the primary mental health resource for some, but this has led to concerns about readers self-diagnosing or opting for self-treatment without seeking expert guidance. It is crucial to understand that while these books offer valuable insights, they cannot replace mental health experts’ nuanced, personalised care.

For instance, someone grappling with depression may find comfort in a self-help book, but relying solely on its advice could be detrimental and potentially even dangerous. Mental health is multifaceted, and while literature can provide broad answers, professional care deepens into an individual’s unique experiences and needs. This bespoke approach is crucial for effective treatment and giving the individual the best possible chance at improved mental health and a happier life.

Final thoughts

Literature, both fictional and instructional, offers valuable perspectives on mental health. While novels like The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar create empathy and understanding, self-help books provide a roadmap to personal growth. However, it is essential to strike a balance. While literature can enlighten and guide, professional treatment remains the gold standard for addressing mental health challenges.

If you or a loved one is facing mental health issues, seeking guidance from experts like those at UKAT is crucial. Your well-being deserves both the profound insights from your favourite books and the expertise of our dedicated professionals. Get in touch with us today if you are looking for effective ways to improve your mental health or wellness.

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(Click here to see works sited)

  • Carnegie, Dale. How To Win Friends and Influence People. Simon & Schuster, 2009.
  • Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Free Press, 2004.
  • McClure, Iain. “Medical Classics: The Bell Jar – PMC.” NCBI, 2007, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1895635/. Accessed 28 September 2023.
  • Muller, Robert T. “The Catcher in the Rye – The Trauma & Mental Health Report.” The Trauma & Mental Health Report, 2 December 2019, https://trauma.blog.yorku.ca/2019/12/the-catcher-in-the-rye/. Accessed 28 September 2023.
  • Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Heinemann, 1963.
  • Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1951.
  • Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library, 1999.
In observance of Mental Health Awareness Day on the 10th of October, we’re offering limited, FREE 30-minute online therapy sessions. To schedule your session, email bookings@ukatlondonclinic.com with your name, contact number, and topic of discussion and one of our helpful mental health experts will be in touch.
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