World Mental Health Day

Today, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day. I write about this both because it’s an important cause that affects many many people, and because books and reading have a major part to play in helping improve mental health.

This year World Mental Health Day has the theme “dignity in mental health” – dealing with stigma and discrimination, changing social attitudes and spreading public awareness of the nature of mental illness. These are all major aims of Bristol Mind, among others, and many people are holding coffee mornings and other events around the city – and the world – today.

As author Matt Haig discussed in his excellent article for the Telegraph yesterday, books can genuinely help those with depression and other mental-health issues. The Reading Agency works with GPs to prescribe books to alleviate mental-health problems through its Reading Well scheme. And this actually works. Reading reduces stress; it also improves empathy, memory and cognition – perhaps we should all be prescribed books!

Books are also an important tool for awareness. It’s one thing to be told a string of facts about mental health. It’s another to spend several hours living those facts via a novel or memoir. Time to Change put together a list of books about living with mental illness for World Book Day 2012, and you may find some of the titles suggested surprising.

Personally, I have learned so much about mental illness from The Bell Jar, The Hours, Franny and Zooey, Wish Her Safe at Home, Swimming Home, Beside the Sea, Mr Chartwell and countless other books. While I’ve had my own moments of anxiety and depression, I’m lucky enough not to suffer from either regularly or to a crippling degree, but I know others who have and I think it’s important to try to understand what that’s like. Books are my way in.

What about you? Have you read books that helped you to understand mental health issues? Or perhaps you disagree that reading can be useful in this way? Let me know in the comments!