Mental Illness Representation in Literature: The Good and the Problematic

Do you tire of reading stereotypes of “insane” characters? Check out our recommendations that offer nuanced perspective on mental illness representation.

Author's Corner Book Culture Classics Diverse Voices Fiction Literary Fiction Memoirs & Biographies Opinions Recommendations

Trigger Warning: The mention of suicide and mental illness may be triggering for some readers. Please exercise personal care when reading.

For the past several centuries in Western literature, characters with mental disorders were almost always relegated to the roles of either a tragic figure or the villain. They either lacked agency as a result of their disorder or committed acts of evil inspired by their mental illness. The Gothic Horror genre is arguably one of the largest perpetrators of this inaccurate representation, causing conditions like Schizophrenia and Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) to be heavily stigmatized.

It was only within the last century that characters with mental health struggles were presented with a sympathetic lens and somewhat accurately depicted in literature. This representation is important because people with these conditions are able to see themselves in characters other than the villain, remember that they are not alone in their struggles, and perhaps cope with their conditions in a healthy way. Also, these books raise awareness and increase empathy among the general population so everyone can be more understanding of the invisible illnesses of the world.

In honor of Stress Awareness Month, here are four books that offer accurate and sympathetic representations of characters struggling with mental health disorders and four books in which the authors should have done more research about the mental struggles their characters face.

Good: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

plath-the-bell-jar-book-cover-shows-woman's legs-from-hips-down-in skirt-and-dress-shoes

This semi-autobiographical novel of a perfectionistic young woman struggling with depression and suicidal ideation is just as relevant to readers as when it was first published in 1963. While the novel does have a poetic style, it provides a realistic depiction of finding one’s place in the world despite one’s mind insisting that such a place does not exist for them. While the novel is in many ways a product of its time, it is arguably one of the first novels that attempted to humanize mental illness in a way that evokes empathy.

Problematic: The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe


The work of Edgar Allan Poe was integral in shaping the modern horror genre, but it is disturbing how many of his stories vilify mental illness. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Mr. Usher, whose sensitivity to stimuli can be read as being neurodivergent, buries his sister alive. In “Berenice,” the narrator has a compulsive attention disorder that causes him to murder his cousin and steal her teeth. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator spirals into insanity after killing an old man and hiding his body under the floorboards. Considering that most people who struggle with mental illness are not killers, the mentally ill-to-murderer pipeline in Poe’s stories certainly didn’t age well.

Good: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson


This YA novel by the author of Speak centers on a toxic friendship between high schoolers Lia and Cassie, who compete over who can be the thinnest. When Cassie dies as a result of her eating disorder, Lia must navigate her grief, overcome her own illness, and find hope through recovery. This narrative portrays the mind of someone battling anorexia without romanticizing the disorder, and Anderson’s unique style will keep readers engaged until the conclusion.

Problematic: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher


Many would agree that the Netflix series adaptation of the 2007 novel is problematic in its handling of serious adolescent issues, but the novel is arguably just as bad. The book centers on Clay Jensen, a teenage boy who is given thirteen tapes recorded by his friend and crush Hannah Baker, who recently committed suicide. As he listens to the tapes, Clay discovers who is responsible for Hannah’s death and is forced to deal with the consequences now that she is gone. The story’s largest issue is in its romanticization of suicide, as the narrative almost insists that Hannah is a more valuable character because she is dead. While there was an attempt to evoke sympathy through Hannah’s story, her character is so unlikable that her death feels simultaneously glamorized and pointless.

Good: The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick


Fans of the Oscar-winning film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence should also check out the movie’s 2008 source material. Often lauded as the adult version of Perks of Being a Wallflower, Silver Linings Playbook offers a sometimes funny, often touching narrative of moving forward after institutionalization and finding the balance between a downward spiral and toxic positivity. Arguably one of the better depictions of Bipolar Disorder in recent years, Playbook reminds us that sometimes the best silver linings are the ones we don’t expect.  

Problematic: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontё


This novel is a must-read for fans of 19th-century British literature, but not if one is looking for a sweet romance. Spoilers for a 200-year-old book ahead: the titular character falls for a man that is not only already married, but he keeps his mentally unstable wife Bertha in the attic like an animal. Bertha eventually sets the house on fire and commits suicide, thus enforcing the incorrect moral that the mentally ill are burdens on the “sane,” and there is no point in one living like that. While this trope was quite common for the Gothic literature of the day, Bertha’s story leaves a sour taste in the mouth and the unflinching conviction that Jane could have done better in her choice of husband.

Good: A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar


This biography of Princeton mathematician John Nash, a Nobel Prize recipient who struggled with Schizophrenia, also has a critically acclaimed film adaptation starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. Nasar details all aspects of Nash’s life, from his contributions to Game Theory to his complicated relationship with his family. This portrait of a genius is unafraid of depicting all sides of Nash, thereby humanizing both genius and mental illness. 

Problematic: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis


Controversial in both novel and film form, American Psycho relies on stereotypes of Psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder to satirize corporate conformity and consumerist culture. The novel has been described as even darker and more violent than the film, with the murders of women being not only graphic, but sexualized. Considering most people with Antisocial Personalities or Psychopathy are more likely to hurt themselves than other people, stories like American Psycho only fuel the stigma against people with these conditions and inspire needless fear in the general public.   

While not all representation of mental illness in literature has been accurate in the past, due to the increase of diverse voices in recent years, authors have made some great strides forward in writing authentic experiences for every kind of person.

For more great mental health reads, click here!