Reading and Mental Health
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a cause close to my heart. I debated on writing this post because I am not a doctor, therapist, scholar, or anyone else who may have a deeper knowledge base on the subject. I have, however, battled depression and anxiety my entire life, so I write from the perspective of firsthand experience rather than medical expertise. After years of comparing coping strategies with fellow mental health warriors, I’ve found the simple act of reading is a common tool which brings both respite and validation during times of struggle. Here is my take on why this habit resonates with people of differing backgrounds, ages, and cultures.
For one, reading provides the element of escape. As Stephen King said, “Books are portable magic.” When we open a book, we open a whole other world. Whatever genre, as readers, we immerse ourselves into the time, place, and feel of the story. We enjoy the way a fantasy transports us to a magical realm, a mystery sharpens our focus, a thriller causes our heart to race, or a romance sends us swooning. The moments we spend lost in the pages allow our brain a break from any fretful or despondent thoughts. The constant intrusion of our negative inner voice is silenced, if only for a while.
More importantly, reading gives us confirmation we are not alone. Characters reflect the universal symptoms and emotions particular to mental health issues. I remember the first time I read Jane Eyre as a teenager. Jane, though resolute in nature, suffers from what I would consider to be depression and anxiety at many points in the story. Charlotte Bronte captured these bleak feelings, ones I thought only I felt, in such eloquent words. To have these notions mirrored back to me over one hundred and fifty years later made me feel seen and understood, the validation a balm to my broken spirit. Reading helps us nurture ourselves through disquieting times, a steady beacon of light in the darkness.
It is also heartening when we see characters accepted as they are despite their struggles. One popular example is Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. The rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang not only include him, but they don’t try to change him or shame him over his mental health. They allow him to feel whole just the way he is. Likewise, at the end of The Lord of the Rings, the quest, though fulfilled, changes Frodo irreparably. As he says, “There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep.” The other Hobbits don’t try to talk him out of feeling this way, or tell him to cheer up and just be happy. They understand the burden he carried came with certain consequences. When we read about empathy from others, it gives us hope we can find it in real life.
Stories are an amalgamation of the vast human experience distilled into individual characters. Honest portrayals of the spectrum of mental health issues can open minds, link hearts, and help end the stigma of shame so often associated with these conditions. Again, this piece is my opinion, but if one person reading it feels less alone, I am happy, because one of the incomparable powers of words is the ability to comfort those who fight an invisible and depleting battle with their mind every day. To all my fellow warriors—I see you and you matter.