5 Main Characters in Best Sellers Who Live with Mental Illness

JAN. 14, 2016

By Luna Greenstein

I read a lot of books. Reading is both my passion and my hobby. A single day without a little bit of time for reading, for me, is an imcomplete day. Lately, I’ve noticed mental health seems to show up in a multitude of the books that I’ve been reading, within all different genres. Main and supporting characters alike have been subtly or flashily showing their mental health problems.

Most of the time, the authors integrate the theme of mental health organically, in a way that proves how common mental illness actually is. These authors create well-rounded characters that go through mental health challenges because it makes them relatable to the millions of people who live with mental health conditions everyday.

The more of these books that are published, the more understandable and normal I believe mental illness will become. The truth is, struggles with mental health are common and they should be represented as such. Including mental health in everyday culture in a way that is accurate and competent, even if it’s dramatized at times, helps to eradicate the stigma that surrounds the topic. It gives readers, like myself, the chance to talk about mental health during book club meetings or any other book-centered conversations.

If you are interested in reading a best seller that contains characters and topics that relate to mental health, here are a few releases that stood out to me.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Rachel is going through a time of turmoil as she tries to recover from a heart-breaking divorce. Her ex-husband, Tom, left her for his mistress, who he now has a child with. Every day, Rachel rides the commuter train into London and passes the house that she used to share with Tom. During each train ride, Rachel imbibes excessive amounts of alcohol in order to cope with the situation. She lost her job due to her alcohol abuse and only rides the train so that her roommate won’t find out that she’s unemployed.

Rachel’s emotional state and substance abuse is a major theme throughout the book. She often drinks to the point of blackout and then cannot remember important events, which is what keeps the mystery of the truth hidden while the book remains suspenseful until the end.


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Juno Diaz

Instead of being a charming player like the other Dominican boys in jersey, Oscar is an overweight loner who wears “his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber.” The book chronicles Oscar’s life, where his debilitating depression and suicidal ideation are central themes. Facing constant rejection leads Oscar to extreme measures including isolation and attempting to die by suicide. Oscar is not only a character that you actively root for, but he is also one that you can relate to as he struggles to make friends and find love.


Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Bernadette is a revolutionary, retired architect. Since moving to Seattle for her husband’s job at Microsoft over 10 years prior, Bernadette still hasn’t gotten used to it. In fact, she loathes it. She refers to the other mothers at her daughter’s school as gnats and treats them as such.  

Her anxiety and panic define her everyday actions, including outsourcing all of her errands to an online assistant in India, so that she won’t have to leave the house. Her hatred for Seattle triggers her anxiety on an almost daily basis. When her anxiety and recklessness cause a riff in her marriage, Bernadette suddenly disappears.


 by Therese Anne Fowler

This biographical fiction novel depicts the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, focusing largely on her marriage with Scott. Zelda is often though of as Scott’s wild, disruptive wife, but Z unveils so much more about her than just that. 

There has been a lot of speculation as to if she had a mental health condition and what it was. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the last years of her life at a mental hospital. As the book goes on, Zelda slowly starts to unravel as her unstable life and marriage triggers delusions, compulsion, among other symptoms.


Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Mental health is a clear theme as soon as we find out that main character, Camille, has recently had a brief stay at a mental hospital. Camille is a troubled young investigative journalist who is going home for the first time in eight years to uncover the murder of a young girl. Wind Gap, Mo. isn’t exactly a comforting place for Camille to return to as she faces the estrangement of her hypochondriac mother and the painful memory of her dead sister.

Camille has a lot to cope with as she attempts to unlock this mystery and endure her stressful homecoming. She is constantly resisting the urge to cut herself, especially because she has little space left on her body. Due to many years of self-harming behavior, almost her entire body is etched with various words, such as “nasty,” “babydoll” and “wicked.” A fact that she attempts to hide by wearing long sleeve clothing at all times, but it becomes increasingly difficult when she cannot resist the urge to carve into herself and release her pain.

While reading each of these novels, my natural instinct was to empathize with these characters as they underwent their struggles. When I read their stories, I didn’t blame them for what they went through. Instead, I understood that their symptoms, and most of the events that triggered them, were not their fault. Everyone has their own story to tell and experience to bring to the table, so there is always an opportunity to learn when you read.


FEB, 06, 2016 06:34:20 AM
Food for thoughts...

JAN, 27, 2016 09:48:11 PM
Amy Clinger
I just bought a digital copy of "He Wanted the Moon" by Mimi Baird. As a Student of Psychology and avid reader (when I'm not reading text books or peer-reviewed journal publications), I am hoping to find this book painfully realistic and an intriguing read. Will post again when finished, unless others have read it too and care to talk about it......if its worth talking about. Sure hope it is!

JAN, 25, 2016 03:58:51 PM
Mitzi Bockmann
Full disclosure, I have only read one book on this list. I DO NOT agree that the lead character in A Girl on the Train suffers from mental illness. She suffers from abandonment, humiliation, degradation but she is not mentally ill. Her job loss and her drinking problem are a direct result of her husband walking out on her for another woman not because she suffers from mental illness. This is an important distinction that many people miss...the difference between the chemical disorder that is a mental illness and intense sadness and depression that results from trauma.

If you want to read a book on mental illness, read the one about my grandfather, HE WANTED THE MOON. He (like me and my great father) suffered from BiPolar disorder. The book is taken directly from the notes that he wrote when he was manic or depressed. It is a first hand, true life, accounting of someone with mental illness, someone who was trying to prove its chemical component in his moments of sanity. It's an incredible story....and Brad Pitt is making it into a movie.

JAN, 20, 2016 02:54:05 PM
Debra Bowling
Wally Lamb also had two other books that are great in exploring mental health and early lives. She's Come Undone & We Are Water. Great works of fiction.

JAN, 19, 2016 04:54:21 PM
Debra Bowling
When I became serious about writing fiction, I discovered a strong need to integrate pieces of my family history into the novel. I eventually created two characters that are different in many ways from my family, but had some of the experiences in the first half of the book. The Memory of Flight covers a 16 year time span with a mother and her daughter. It was very difficult to write, but much understanding and healing came about from the process. I am hopeful it will be helpful to others - a recent award has made it a little more prominent to others.

JAN, 17, 2016 07:24:36 PM
Thomas Normile
Juno Diaz writes with Dominican passion, NY savvy and a view that I have never quite read, heard - only know in my fantasies.

JAN, 17, 2016 05:16:34 PM
I notice lots of people who read disagree with the choices the author makes in the book they read. This can include how much a character is liked, how effective using a plot device like mental illness or sexual abuse is in the story, and even choices authors make in their own lives.

JAN, 17, 2016 03:58:55 PM
Debbie Pegher
Wally Lamb as an author writes about mental illness. As a sibling of a schrizophenic brother, the book " I Know This Much Is True" is a good read from a sibling's point of view

JAN, 17, 2016 03:50:55 PM
Kevin DeBlasi
Despite being an active NAMI member author Joseph DeBlasi's self published bipolar memoir "Polarized" Sex Lies and Family Betrayal, has been largely ignored by NAMI National. This despite universal agreement that it is one of the best bi polar memoirs to date. Can check out the audio version online for free and judge for yourself. Wake up NAMI National you have a game changer here!

JAN, 17, 2016 03:30:28 PM
William Jiang
Love your book suggestions! For more great books, check out www.mentalhealthbooks.net

JAN, 17, 2016 11:44:11 AM
You forgot Lucas Davenport, who suffers from depression John Sanford

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