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Great Books for Helping with Mental Health

Mental Health Awareness Week is taking place from 9th to 15th May 2022. Here is some recommended reading for yourself or friends struggling with mental health issues.

When I first became ill with depression, a few years ago, friends plied me with all different kinds of books - from The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama to The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters - to help me see that I wasn’t alone and in the hope that one of them would help me. One friend, who had suffered herself, was particularly persistent and did find a couple that have really helped. She tells me that she wishes that she’d had the wherewithal to do the same for herself when she was going through her own issues but that her depressed brain was rarely that helpful! Useful to remember if a friend is going through it.

The book that I found most helpful and which really struck a chord with me was The Inflamed Mind by Edward Bullmore, a Cambridge professor and psychiatrist. The book explores two new fields of medicine - Neuroimmunology and Immunopsychology - explaining how the body and brain directly affect each other. For 200 years, modern medicine has abided by the Cartesian principle that inflictions do not cross the blood brain barrier (BBB). For example, if you have rheumatoid arthritis, you cannot be depressed - you are just sad because you have rheumatoid arthritis! This is a very reductive sentence to try to explain a very complex field but hopefully it makes sense. The book certainly does.

I have suffered with an immune disease for the past 12 years and could see a lot of my track record unfolding in this book. But more importantly, it enabled me to start a different kind of dialogue with my psychiatrist and my psychologist. It helped put things in perspective from an empirical point of view rather than the warm and fuzzy stuff. I realise that not everyone is under professional care but this helped me control the conversation a little more and gave me the initiative to take ownership of what was happening in my head.

A book that I have read most recently is Psycho-Logical by Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and psychiatry lecturer. This book looks at how the brain itself functions and how things can go wrong, leading to mood disorders and mental health issues. It is written in engaging prose, clear layman’s terms and does help you gain a grasp of our most complex organ. I find it comforting to understand the science behind why I suffer from major depressive disorder, as I still haven’t found an answer to the question “How did I get here?” that I have been asking my therapist for the past four years.

I am lucky that I found a good therapist with whom I have the right chemistry and have built a relationship of trust. But many people are still resistant to the idea of ‘talking therapies’, believing that it’s easier to just bury their feelings - that we should all be able to just deal with it on our own. Taking the first steps in admitting you need help and finding someone can often be the hardest. A helpful book, if you are unsure about any part of the process, is Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb - a therapist who herself ended up in therapy. It demystifies the process of therapy with several helpful anecdotal case studies that may make someone who is nervous a little more comfortable with the idea of seeing a psychologist. And of course, there is the old adage “... the comfort of strangers”. It is sometimes easier to get things off your chest with someone who doesn’t know you, doesn’t have a vested interest and will not judge you.

Anxiety is plaguing many people, especially during this pandemic. People are unsure whether to throw themselves into normal life again; whether or not they are still comfortable in large groups, or about something more intangible and - dare I say it - irrational. And I don’t use that word lightly. I was sitting in my pyjamas with my cat one night, watching TV and suddenly had a panic attack. Out of nowhere and for no apparent reason. Irrational! But still valid. A great book for providing you with a range of different techniques for overcoming anxieties and stress is Be Calm: Proven Techniques to Stop Anxiety Now by Jill P. Weber, a clinical psychologist. You can pick and choose, trial and error with the strategies to find the best one for you.

Naturally, everyone is different. Different approaches and information will resonate uniquely with each individual. I have found each of the above books helpful, practical and non-judgemental. They’re all easy to find online, maybe give one (or all) of them a go. Let me know if they help.

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