From science to self-compassion: 10 of the best books about mental health

As Mental Health Awareness Week begins, Ali Roff Farrar shares the best mental health books, including books about depression, anxiety and stress.

07/05/2021
2 minutes to read

What are the best mental health books out there? Here, we round up our top 10 books about mental health, anxiety, depression and stress, from fascinating research to hilarious page-turners and beautiful memoirs.

For those who want to understand their minds

The Cambridge Code

by Emma Loveridge

Book cover for 9781529025637

Why do we think the way we think, do the things we do, react the way we react? ‘We each have a world inside us that, at times, operates independently of the present moment and at other times in conjunction with the present reality of the world around us’, write Dr Emma Loveridge and Dr Curly Moloney, in their book The Cambridge Code: One Simple Test to Uncover Who You Are. The authors, together with a team of scientists at Cambridge, have put together a test which they share in this book to help you ‘uncover subconscious potential that lies beyond the reach of established psychological measurement’ – to understand the ‘DNA’ of your mind – essentially why you are the way you are. 

Why is this important for the improvement of our mental health, you may ask? ‘The reality is that there are fundamental aspects of our personality that are deeply rooted within us that underlie our developmental axis and govern our potential for growth,’ write Emma and Curly. ‘These are the characteristics that sit deep within the workings of our mind, beneath the level of conscious thought and behaviour. These subconscious aspects affect everything we do; the way we approach and react to all the events and interactions of our lives. These are the essential parts of ourselves . . .  They are our core. Psychologists believe that the more we understand about our core characteristics, the more we can recognise what really suits us and the more we will be able to flourish.’ The book provides step-by-step analysis alongside the test, which helps you to understand yourself better, and also uncover which areas of your life you might want to work on in order to grow and flourish on a deeper level. 


For mental health hangovers from childhood

Toxic Childhood Stress

by Dr Nadine Burke Harris

Book cover for 9781509823987

To go forward, we must go back. As many as two thirds of us experienced some kind of childhood adversity, and Dr Nadine Burke Harris aims to help uncover, identify and heal childhood trauma in her book Toxic Childhood Stress: The Legacy of Early Trauma and How to Heal. And it’s important work; childhood trauma not only affects mental health, but physiological health too.

‘Twenty years of medical research has shown that childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades,’ Dr Burke Harris writes. ‘It can tip a child’s developmental trajectory and affect physiology. It can trigger chronic inflammation and hormonal changes that can last a lifetime. It can alter the way DNA is read and how cells replicate, and it can dramatically increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes — even Alzheimer’s.’ As the Surgeon General of California and the founder and CEO of Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, Dr Burke Harris pulls together stories and findings from her ground-breaking research linking childhood trauma to health in this fascinating and astonishing read.

What Happened to You?

by Oprah Winfrey

Book cover for 9781529068467

Through wide-ranging, and often deeply personal conversation, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Perry explore how what happens to us in early childhood – both good and bad - influences the people we become. In conversation throughout the book, the two focus on understanding people, behaviour, and ourselves in the context of personal experiences. They remove blame and self-shaming, and open up a space for healing and understanding. Grounded in the latest brain science and brought to life through compelling narratives, this book shines a light on a much-needed path to recovery – showing us our incredible capacity to transform after adversity.


For those struggling with anxiety

Anxiety for Beginners

by Eleanor Morgan

Book cover for 9781509813247

‘Anxiety itself is not a mental illness. Let’s make that absolutely clear,’ explains Eleanor Morgan in her sharp and brilliant book Anxiety for Beginners: A Personal Investigation. ‘As part of our hardwiring as human beings, and what it means to be conscious, anxiety is a law of human nature. Natural selection gave us minds and, with them, we were released from the shackles of biological determinism. But the power of the mind is a whole new set of chains because there’s always something to be anxious about. We worry because that’s what we’ve evolved to do.’ 

Decoding anxiety and explaining it with astute and incisive exploration, it’s a compilation of her own experiences, curiously delved into and unpicked with relatable thoughtfulness. ‘Anxiety isn’t just the dizziness of freedom, as the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said. It’s our freedom’s price tag. No other animal on earth has the ability to contemplate their existence, future and the passing of time like we do. I often hold my dog Pamela’s face, look into her teddy-bear eyes and ask her if she knows she’s a dog. “Do you?” I whisper, as she cocks her head to the side.’ This is a book for anyone wishing to understand their anxiety on a deeper level. Brilliant.

Broken

by Jenny Lawson

Book cover for 9781529066791
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As Jenny Lawson’s hundreds of thousands of fans know, she suffers from depression. In Broken, Jenny humanizes what we all face in an all-too-real way, reassuring us that we’re not alone and making us laugh while doing it. She tackles such timelessly debated questions as ‘How do dogs know they have penises?’ We see how her vacuum cleaner almost set her house on fire, how she was attacked by three bears, and why she can never go back to the post office. Of course, Jenny’s long-suffering husband Victor, the Ricky to Jenny’s Lucille Ball, is present throughout. A treat for Jenny Lawson’s already existing fans, and destined to convert new ones, Broken is a beacon of hope and a wellspring of laughter when we all need it most.

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For those drowning in their emotions

How Emotions Are Made

by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Book cover for 9781509837526

What if our emotions weren’t pre-programmed in our brains and bodies? That’s what Lisa Feldman Barrett asks in her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. She instead argues that most of what we believe about emotions is wrong, and that they are not hardwired into our brains, rather a physiological experience which we build ourselves based on the environment and experiences around us. 

It’s a fascinating read steeped in the author’s own research. Lisa explains ‘An emotion is not a thing but a category of instances, and any emotion category has tremendous variety.’ To understand where your own emotional responses stem from and how they appear in your own body is an intriguing concept. ‘It doesn’t mean that emotions are an illusion, or that bodily responses are random,’ says Lisa. ‘It means that on different occasions, in different contexts, in different studies, within the same individual and across different individuals, the same emotion category involves different bodily responses. Variation, not uniformity, is the norm.’


For those seeking hope within depression

The Stranger on the Bridge

by Jonny Benjamin

Book cover for 9781509846436

What does it feel like to lose all hope, and find it again? That’s what Johnny Benjamin shares in his brave memoir The Stranger on the Bridge: My Journey from Suicidal Despair to Hope, which tells the story of how he found himself standing atop Waterloo Bridge, ready to jump, when a stranger saw him and intervened by stopping to talk to him. Years later, Johnny took on the monumental task of trying to find the stranger who saved his life. Johnny’s story is one of hope – lost and then found. Through sharing his story and personal diary excerpts dating back to his childhood, including his struggles accepting and sharing his sexuality and his mental health struggles within his Jewish family and community, he shares a unique yet relatable story of mental health.

The Book of Hope

by Jonny Benjamin

Book cover for 9781509846375

Award-winning mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, MBE, and co-editor Britt Pflüger bring together people from all walks of life – actors, musicians, athletes, psychologists and activists – to share what gives them hope. This joyful collection is a supportive hand to anyone looking to find light on a dark day and shows that, no matter what you may be going through, you are not alone. Jonny Benjamin is known for his book and documentary film, The Stranger on the Bridge, which fought to end stigma around talking about mental health, suicidal thoughts and schizoaffective disorder. When his campaign to find the man who prevented him from taking his own life went viral, Jonny was one of a wave of new figures lifting the lid on mental health struggles. In this book, he brings together a range of voices to speak to the spectrum of our experiences of mental health and the power of speaking up and seeking help.


For those who have just discovered that they have ‘mental health’

A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental

by Natasha Devon

Book cover for 9781509882229

‘Whilst statistically one in three of the population will struggle with their mental wellbeing in a way that is recognized within the scope of medical diagnostic criteria . . . ‘ writes Natasha Devon in her book A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental: An A–Z,  ‘ . . . three in three people have a head with a brain in it.’ Her point?  ‘We all exist somewhere within a spectrum of mental health.’ Natasha’s contribution to this list is a hilarious read which takes us on a journey through the alphabet of mental health, all the way from Anxiety, to ZERO FUCKS GIVEN (or the art of having high self-esteem), with a few pitstops at Drugs, Internet, Therapy and other useful themes connecting to mental health along the way. Sourcing expert advice along with her own laugh-out-loud personal experiences, this is observational comedy meets mental health advice, resulting in a newfound understanding of mental wellbeing, and a sense that however you are feeling, whatever you’re going through, you’re not the only one.


For chronic people pleasers

Untamed

by Glennon Doyle

Book cover for Untamed

As a New York Times bestseller which has sold over one million copies and featured on lists including  Oprah’s O Magazine and Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club, Untamed by activist Glennon Doyle had to get a mention in our list of top books about mental health. Centred around the theme of learning to listen inwardly in order to find yourself, Glennon explores the peace and happiness to be found in shedding the pressures of the external expectations around us, from cultural conditioning to the institutionalised expectations we grow up around and adopt. Sharing her own personal story of how, when and why she decided to stop pleasing others, and being ‘good’ in order to find her own happiness, this is a powerful memoir, and a wakeup call to stop living for someone else, and start living for ourselves.