A Mental Health Reading List (Provided By The Genre’s Leading Authors)

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A Mental Health Reading List (Provided By The Genre’s Leading Authors)

Words by Mr Sam Parker

8 December 2020

In 2013, the UK government released a statistic that shocked the nation. Suicide was the number one cause of death in men under 50. It claimed more lives than heart disease, alcoholism or cancer.

The reasons were frustratingly varied and complex, but included the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crash and rising divorce rates among older men. One thing seemed clear. It was high time we started having conversations about mental health.

Seven years later and suicide has gone from a taboo topic to a regular talking point. Corporate HR departments run emotional wellbeing workshops for employees. Pub posters implore us to check in with our mates. Politicians use phrases such as “It’s OK not to be OK”. The conversations, then, are well and truly under way, which is a wonderful thing. Most of us have learnt to think of our mental health as no different from our physical health, something we know we need to keep an eye on, even if it can be difficult to know the best way how.

The question of what we do next is something more and more writers are engaging with, producing books that offer a deeper understanding of the complex issues behind depression, anxiety and suicide. Moving the conversation from simply raising awareness to offering practical advice and personal accounts, they go deeper than a few words printed on the back of a beermat and offer a blueprint for individuals and society alike.

This year, in particular, authors from a range of backgrounds have brought insight, empathy and humour to the stories of their own struggles. And after a year when everyone’s mental health has been impacted by the pandemic, they couldn’t be more timely. Here, we ask six of our favourite authors what they recommend you read next.

01. Mr Alastair Campbell

Author of Living Better: How I Learned To Survive Depression

Since leaving a career in frontline politics – he was Mr Tony Blair’s director of communications during the last Labour government – Mr Alastair Campbell has become a leading mental health campaigner, his reputation as a political bruiser making his openness about a lifelong battle with depression all the most poignant. Living Better is an eloquent, pragmatic and galvanising account of what the 63-year-old has learnt so far.

Mr Campbell recommends:

Mending The Mind by Oliver Kamm is a very personal account of his own struggles with depression, but also looks at the issue through science, art, literature and history. It’s a great combination. If I am allowed two, I am mainly reading German books at the moment as part of a course, and I just read _Robert Enke: Ein allzu kurzes Leben _[A Life Too Short]. Enke was a top German footballer who killed himself, and this account of his life and death and his lifelong struggle with depression is written by Ronald Reng, a close friend, with the support of Enke’s family. It is such a moving book, sad of course, but also uplifting. It has been translated into English for those not doing Goethe-Institut courses.”

Find out more about Mending the Mind: The Art and Science of Overcoming Clinical Depression (Orion Publishing) by Mr Oliver Kamm here

02. Mr Jack Rooke

Author of Cheer The F**k Up: How To Save Your Best Friend

As well as being a burgeoning star of British comedy (his show Big Boys is in production at Channel 4), comedian Mr Jack Rooke has been at the forefront of mental health awareness campaigning for young men for years. His book is a funny and tender but determined attempt to move the issue from the kind of well-meaning platitudes that failed to prevent his best friend from ending his own life. Cheer The F**k Up won’t just help you help yourself, it will show you what to do when someone you love seems like they’re slipping under.

Mr Rooke recommends:

Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd is a fantastically written, emotive and intimate look at the various mental health impacts on the gay community. It begins so heartbreakingly, detailing the suicides of many queer people due to various stigmas, but essentially Matthew’s book is a detailed blend of history and optimism for the future. Every gay teenager should be reading it.”

Find out more about Straight Jacket (Penguin) by Mr Matthew Todd here

03. Mr Matt Haig

Author of Reasons To Stay Alive

Arguably the one to which all the other books on this list owe a debt, Mr Matt Haig’s landmark autobiographical account of depression arrived in 2015 and not only showed a book could be published on the subject, but that people would buy it. It became a Sunday Times bestseller and shifted more than a million copies around the world. Mr Haig is also a hugely popular novelist whose work touches on the same themes. His latest book, The Midnight Library, is out now.

Mr Haig recommends:

Letters To A Young Poet is a short book. It is 10 real-life letters written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a 19-year-old Franz Kappus who, as the title makes clear, had aspirations of becoming a serious poet. At the start, Rilke tells the young poet that he has no interest in reviewing or criticising Kappus’ poetry and instead proceeds to offer a wide range of life advice. It’s a book about how to feel emotion, how to love, the purpose of art and how to find truth. At less than 100 pages, it probably packs more wisdom per page than any other book out there.”

Find out more about Letters To A Young Poet (Penguin Classics) by Mr Rainer Maria Rilke here

04. Mr Mohsin Zaidi

Author of A Dutiful Boy: A Memoir Of A Gay Muslim’s Journey To Acceptance

A memoir released to widespread acclaim this year, Mr Mohsin Zaidi’s story of growing up in a devout Muslim community before making it to Oxford University and becoming a barrister in London is a brilliant and, in many ways, startling insight into how issues around sexuality identity, race and religion can collide when it comes to mental health.

Mr Zaidi recommends:

“Mental wellbeing is always associated with the mind, but, for me, the nervous energy, the heightened anxiety, the sense of failure congregate not in the brain, but in my gut. It’s almost as if they are so locked in battle that they become indecipherable from one another. Inseparable in the pit of my stomach. It’s not a mental sensation, but a mangled-up, physical one that requires, among other things, a physical response. It’s for this reason that I unreservedly recommend Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Unlike Murakami, I am not an ultramarathon runner, not even a marathon runner, and yet, for my mental wellbeing, the book is one of the most important I have read. To say that this is a book about running misses the point. It is a book about the lives we lead and the thoughts within them that can take over. Thoughts about our professions, our creativity, our futures, our pasts, our inevitable and unceasing stumble towards old age. About running, Murakami writes that no matter how mundane some actions might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes contemplative, even meditative. The difference between going for a long run and his memoir? At no point will the meditative act of reading this book feel mundane.”

Find out more about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Vintage Books) by Mr Haruki Murakami here

05. Mr Rob Temple

Author of Born To Be Mild: Adventures For The Anxious

Perhaps the only comedy Twitter account to endure and become something of a national treasure, Very British Problems has almost four million followers and counting. Mr Rob Temple, the brains behind the rain and tea jokes, has written an account of living with severe anxiety that is unsurprisingly funny and useful for anyone who finds the pressure of social situations overwhelming.

Mr Temple recommends:

“To use some classic recovery talk, I identified a lot with what Catherine Gray says in The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober. Like her, I quit drinking after a dangerous and disastrous life-long relationship with booze had gradually and sneakily reached a point where it was either going to imprison me or kill me (it came very close). What I love about this book is the heavy focus on sobriety not as something to put up with, or to grin and bear, but as something to be embraced, enjoyed and celebrated. It really did play a part in retraining my brain to realise that life without the bottle is so much more rewarding. It’s not airy-fairy either. Or self-pitying. It’s honest and scientific in its approach and provides loads of tools and tips to use when my old, wretched way of thinking tries to revisit. I pick up the book whenever I need a boost. A quick dip in and out provides me with a clear head and a renewed sense of optimism for the future. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s trapped in an abusive relationship with alcohol, or to anyone who simply wants a reminder as to the joy of being on the wagon.”

Find out more about The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober (Octopus Publishing) by Ms Catherine Gray here

06. Mr Matt Rudd

Author of Man Down: Why Men Are Unhappy And What We Can Do About It

A journalist by trade – Mr Matt Rudd has been a senior writer at The Sunday Times since 2002 – it is no surprise his book takes a broader view of the male suicide epidemic, particularly among the middle-aged demographic, where there have been some of the worst increases in the past decade. In Man Down, Mr Rudd uses his own story to illuminate much of his reporting. He resists definitive conclusions, but offers plenty of useful insight for anyone struggling to understand why they feel depressed.

Mr Rudd recommends:

“As I spiralled into a proper mid-life slump, I read a lot of self-help books, none of which I found particularly self-helpful. Apart from Marie Kondo – tried that, too – they all appear to be written by people who used to be in the SAS or the Navy Seals and they treat symptoms rather than causes. What you need is the book equivalent of an osteopath, not the book equivalent of Nurofen. Oddly enough, the closest I’ve come to finding that is How Not To Be A Boy by the actor and comedian Robert Webb. It is more a coming-of-age memoir than a self-help guide, which is as it should be. Webb reflects on his own childhood in the 1970s and on the damage wrought by gender conditioning. This is what we need to understand as a society: raising boys to be strong and stoic, to suppress their emotions, to prioritise success over happiness is the reason why so many of us end of miserable in midlife. Webb does this beautifully – and he has never even commanded a submarine.”

Find out more about How Not To Be A Boy (Canongate) by Mr Robert Webb here