Books on Depression

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In #9, change “man” to “woman.”

A reader responded to my negative review of Annie Lamott’s Almost Everything (July 12, 2019) by asking if I could recommend any books on depression. The short answer is yes and no.

The problem is that there are many books out there that purport to address the issue of depression. Note the word “purport.” I’ll explain my use of that cautiously qualifying verb by saying when I decided to do some research in the hopes of finding books that actually deal with depression without lapsing into malignant narcissism or self-righteous political polemics, I quickly found out it ain’t as easy as I thought it might be.

First, what qualifies as a book on depression? The Bell Jar¸ by Sylvia Plath, is technically a novel (roman à clef would be more accurate), but as I remember it (I read it back when Jimmy Carter was in office, literally, as preparation for my role as Buddy in the unsuccessful movie starring Marilyn Hassett) it is a book about depression. Will it help you deal with your depression? I’ll have to go back and re-read it, but my recollection is that because it follows a fictional construct, it would only be helpful in a sort of peripheral, oblique way. I’ll know more after I re-read it, but it is certainly not a self-help book.

There are memoirs by and about people dealing with depression. I have recently read or re-read three of those I can unreservedly say are excellent: William Manchester’s Goodbye, Darkness, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. I hope to review all three in length, at some future date when I feel a little more up to the task, because all three deserve to be read as much for literary merit as for any other reason. In the meantime, while all three offer insights into depression and some of that disease’s ancillary symptoms, none of them qualify as self-help books.

Manchester’s is probably the least helpful, being more a memoir of the appallingly bloody Pacific War and some of the nightmarish experiences he had there than it is about his own mental state, but it is emphatically worth reading, both for its historical analysis of the Pacific campaign and for its portrayal of the stresses those young men were put under and the incredible sacrifices they made. Here is his description of close quarters combat inside a small hut on one of the remote islands you and I have never heard of where so many young American men died for us:

“My first shot had missed him, embedding itself in the straw wall, but the second caught him dead on in the femoral artery. His left thigh blossomed, swiftly turning to mush. A wave of blood gushed from the wound; then another boiled out, sheeting across his legs, pooling on the earthen floor. Mutely he looked down at it. He dipped a hand in it and listlessly smeared his cheek red. His shoulders gave a little spasmodic jerk, as though someone had whacked him on the back; then he emitted a tremendous, raspy fart, slumped down, and died. I kept firing, wasting government property.”

When self-righteous virtue signalers tell you what a monstrous act America committed by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, remember that over 75,000 young American soldiers were killed on Okinawa alone, an island that measures only seventy miles in length and approximately seven miles across. Read Manchester’s book, and you will understand why he suddenly found himself having troubles thirty-five years later. Shooting another human being can be every bit as traumatic as getting shot.

Styron’s is a straightforward account of his own descent into an exceptionally severe and virulent variant of depression, one that required his ultimate hospitalization and the use of serious medications. It, like Manchester’s memoir, is exquisitely written, well worth reading, and offers hope from the point of view that both men recovered ultimately, but it too is not a self-help book. It is, however, a grim description of what really severe depression can do to a person.

“Depression afflicts millions directly, and millions more who are relatives or friends of victims. It has been estimated that as many as one in ten Americans will suffer from the illness. As assertively democratic as a Norman Rockwell poster, it strikes indiscriminately at all ages, races, creeds and classes, though women are at considerably higher risk than men… [snip] …Despite depression’s eclectic reach, it has been demonstrated with fair convincingness that aristocratic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder—which, in its graver, clinical manifestation takes upward of twenty percent of its victims by way of suicide.”

Aristocratic antecedents and artistic ability are cold comfort to sufferer and families of sufferers both.

Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, is probably the most revealing, from the point of view that she discusses candidly both her symptoms and her diagnoses, frequently with a wonderfully off-beat sense of the absurd:

“It was a spring day, the sort that gives people hope: all soft winds and delicate smells of warm earth. Suicide weather.”

Ms. Kaysen was hospitalized at the prestigious McLean Hospital just outside Boston, the same hospital where, many years earlier, Sylvia Plath, poet Robert Lowell, singers James Taylor and Ray Charles, among others, were hospitalized.

“What is it about meter and cadence and rhythm that makes their makers mad?”

Her book, which I first read many years ago, was the first to alert me to the fact that depression can be associated with, or coupled with, a variety of other psychiatric disorders, up to and including psychotic episodes. From that point of view alone it is well worth reading.

Not owning any self-help books, I decided to do some online research and found certain books being recommended over and over again by multiple people.

And therein lies the rub. You can’t believe everything you read online, whether it’s about politics or depression. Even when you do find a trustworthy on-line source, read what it says carefully.

Because I have limited resources and limited space, I decided to save money and get some of these books from my little town’s local library. Like most other small towns, our library interconnects with other library systems within our county (four small towns, total) so I had high hopes. Unfortunately, only two of the five books I decided to try were in the system, and only one of those was available. That book is, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, by Sarah Wilson.

Ms. Wilson is an Australian writer, a former journalist and editor of Cosmopolitan Australia, and the best-selling author of I Quit Sugar and a bunch of spin-offs of that book; in fact, she appears to have created a highly successful cottage industry about quitting sugar, a highly sensible project and one for which she is to be commended.

The problem with First, We Make the Beast Beautiful (great title) is that it has nothing to do with depression. In fact, its subtitle is, A New Journey Through Anxiety. None of the reviews I read mentioned that tidbit. Also, I found the book praised on multiple sites and multiple lists of the best books about depression. Wrong: it deals with anxiety issues. It seems to offer some excellent advice for people with anxiety and/or bi-polar disease, but not for those of us suffering from depression. Ms. Wilson’s style of writing is a sort of breezy, hip-and-happening, we’re-all-in-this-together Cosmopolitan style I associate with articles entitled Five Hot Tricks to Drive Him Wild in the Sack! (yes, I look at the covers of the magazines in the checkout line, just as you do) but while I might not enjoy her writing style, I gladly admit it offers great advice. For anxiety sufferers, not depression sufferers.

So, for right now, all I can suggest are the three memoirs above and I’ll keep looking. For thee and for me.

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10 thoughts on “Books on Depression”

  1. Coincidentally, Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, (forgive the lack of italics or underscore but cannot figure out what function might put them in a comment box) was on my list of Summer reads, and I finished it but a few weeks ago. It was the first time I’d read it. Seen the movie many years ago which, likely no surprise, is very different from the book. Being a therapist myself, the most interesting thing I took away from this memoir is how things have changed, but not changed, in the realm of treatment. Ms. Kaysen seems to have been labeled with borderline personality disorder within a few minutes of meeting with a so-called professional. I tell all of my clients that psychiatric hospitalization is nothing more than suicide jail, and they will let you out when you promise to be good and not hurt yourself anymore. Because truly, that’s all it is. No one there cares anything except making sure you are not a liability while you are there nor upon your departure. But currently, this is due to overcrowding and insurance pressures; I’m sure with some one footing the bill, a hospital would have been more than happy to keep a patient for 2 years or so, back in the day.

    If you have never read any of Irvin Yalom, I would highly recommend, especially the title Love’s Executioner. Yalom himself is considered to be one of the fathers of existentialism, but his non-fiction works mirror his actual process with clients. I have read from Love’s Executioner passages to various clients over the years, and they have often found themselves in his writings.

    Two other books I would recommend are Getting Past Your Past by Francine Shapiro, who just passed away recently, and The Body Keeps the Score by Bassel Van der Kolk. Shapiro is the founder of the EMDR intervention, and Van Der Kolk is a renowned trauma therapist from the Boston area.

    I would not recommend the book Healing the Shame that Binds you, because it’s a rather dry read, surprisingly so given that the author, John Bradshaw, is charismatic in person. You can, however, do a YouTube search for the PBS presentation by the same title and see him speak about his work and his process.

  2. Hi JP,
    I loved The Bell Jar, but it would not be the first thing I’d grab from the shelf for someone who is struggling with depression.
    I don’t know of any helpful self-help books on depression.
    My recommendation to you is to find some short story collections; particularly narrative nonfiction stories. I like collections and literary magazines because if you don’t like one person’s perspective, you can go to the next one. For instance, I have several issues of Riverteeth on my currently misplaced kindle. I also feel that narrative nonfiction stories often do touch on depression or take a journey through difficult personal struggles.
    Here is my second recommendation for you. I remember reading at some point that you said you were not a kindle person but hear me out. The screen is not bright like a computer screen if you get the regular, cheaper kind that isn’t backlit. Avoid the backlight. The reason that I mention it is not to try to convince a booklover to switch to a non-book form, but because it might allow you to access titles that your library doesn’t have. If you have a Kindle membership, you can even sort of borrow some of their books (there limit and you have to delete one to get another, and only some choices are available, but I still). You may be also able to from your library on there. Wishing you well and falling asleep, Jennifer

    1. Regarding Kindle and other ebook formats there are Kindle and other book apps for regular Desktop computers so that you can use a 30″+ monitor to view the books. Yes I know that isn’t portable, but is an option to overcome tiny screen problems. A laptop with a large screen or a tablet with a larger screen (12″) is also an option.

      Just a suggestion if using a smart phone or small tablet/book reader is a reason keeping anyone from using an ebook version.


      BTW, many libraries are now offering ebooks so that is also a way to get around a branch not having a good selection…

  3. Hello JP,

    Maybe the best answer is that there are no good self-help books on depression because each depressed person`s experience is different. One person may find help by becoming a cowboy, the next may start doing charity work, someone else may take refuge in playing sports…. The important thing is to recognize when you are depressed so you can do something about it. An Accidental Cowboy is as good a self-help book on depression as any I have read, simply because it doesn`t try to help, but instead presents the author`s experience with depression and what helped him overcome it.

    Gerald from Canada

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I think your assessment is spot-on. The more I read and the more I try to learn, the more I realize that there is no single answer, even for a single individual. The key, which you touched on, is recognizing when the malignant monkey has escaped from his cage so you can get him under control before he gets control of you, and even for one person (this person, speaking from experience) the solution may be different at different times. I know that what works for me are relatively simple exercises. When I told my therapist I was having flashbacks concerning something I had witnessed fifty-five years ago and promised never to reveal, she immediately told me to go home and tell my wife. Result? Flashbacks stopped. Conclusion? Sunlight is frequently the best disinfectant. Try meditation, a long, brisk walk, a quiet moment in a nature preserve, a change of diet, learning a new skill… The list goes on. The malignant monkey may never be permanently banished, but different tools at different times can keep him under control.

      1. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for (Ultimate) Meaning changed my life in regard to depression and eventually understanding my own purpose in life. Everyone’s different, but I highly recommend that book. For me, feeling like I had no purpose for being alive was a huge contributor to my depression.

        Also, rather off topic (?), at one point when I was having some serious suicidal ideation, my rheumatologist ordered labs and found my vitamin D was very low. After starting supplements … miracle cure!

        And of course, Jameson Parker: loved your book, could relate to much of it, and I’m fond of you, too. I love that you became a writer, and such a talented one.

  4. Yes, this agrees with where my thoughts were going as I read along. I do not think the answer will be found in a book. (However, I would not mind if I was wrong.) I think you are already right on track with what you are doing which is reaching out to your readers, “writing it out” and not burying the problem inside. We, your readers, can be a great support group and maybe someone will come up with just the right suggestion.
    I have no qualifications to comment on depression other than that my Mother was hospitalized twice for it and both times she was treated with electric shock therapy. This did and still does seem extreme and barbaric but both times it brought her back to us and she had no apparent mental damage. She was just as sharp as ever until the cancer took her. (This is not a recommendation, just a statement of what worked for one individual).
    For me, there are three things that keep me “grounded”:
    1. Animals, especially dogs and horses. Even if you cannot ride the horses, just hanging out with horses seems to be therapeutic.
    2. Wild, natural places. I have mountains readily available for year-round excursions and the wild valley of a major river only a few kilometres away.
    3. Music. Everyone has a different relationship with music. Listening is one thing but playing an instrument (the voice counts as an instrument) and creating it, especially with other people, is very special. I think we are just beginning to see how beneficial it is to people.
    Please keep writing and I will keep reading! It has been great.
    Nora M.

    1. Dogs are amazing. I have lost some true soulmates. I have three now and can’t imagine life without dogs. I have cats, too, which I love, but you know, they’re weird!

  5. Herr Parker, solange Sie von Ihrer Familie geliebt werden und Sie Ihre Familie lieben und immer füreinander da sind, werden Sie diese und auch weitere Phasen der Depressionen überstehen. Verlieren Sie nie den Glauben an Ihre innere Stärke und an Ihre eigene Kraft . Glauben Sie an sich selbst und an die Liebe Ihrer Familie und an Gott. Arbeiten Sie an sich , sich niemals selbst aufzugeben. Beziehen Sie Ihre
    Familie mit Gesprächen in Ihre Krankheit der Depression mit ein und ziehen Sie sich nicht in sich selbst zurück. So können Ihnen (meiner Meinung nach) vertrauensvolle neue Blickwinkel bei der Bewältigung ihrer Probleme eröffnet werden. (Bücher können eventuell nur allgemeine Anreize zur Depressionsbewältigung bieten, aber nicht eigens auf Ihre persönlichen Probleme eingehen, es sei denn Sie schreiben selbst noch ein Buch). Sie werden die Depression auch diesmal überwinden, denn Sie werden von Ihrer Familie, geliebt und gebraucht. Bitte vergessen Sie nie, für Ihre Familie sind Sie das Wertvollste im Herzen, das es gibt ! ….viele Grüße Manuela

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