Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Time for a Good Read

Over the past few weeks, I have received numerous reading list recommendations – for travel, history, food, sports, and so on. It has inspired me to create a year-end list of my own on mental health.

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Whether you prefer fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, or history, there is something here for everyone. I invite you to curl up with one of these gems over the upcoming holidays or gift one to a friend. No matter your choice, you will have the opportunity to learn something new about mental health and reflect on your own mental health journey.

1. A World of Curiosities: A Novel by Louise Penny. This novel,  published less than a month ago, soared to third place on the New York Times Bestsellers list for hardcovers this week. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache returns in the eighteenth book of Louise Penny’s beloved series. This one is on my list to read over the upcoming holidays. It explores the long shadow of trauma and the psychological implications of childhood histories. What happens to two young children in the wake of their mother’s murder? The community preferred not to know, but now they have returned to their hometown village of Three Pines, and neither they nor their neighbors can ignore the reality of their loss and trauma any longer. A World of Curiosities uncovers the cumulative burden of trauma one layer at a time and illustrates the healing that is possible even if scars remain.

2. Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health by Thomas Insel, MD. Released in February 2022, Healing tells the tragic story of our mental health care system – a story that Dr. Insel knows well, having served as director of the National Institute of Mental Health from 2002 – 2015. During his tenure, Dr. Insel championed basic science’s audacious goals of unraveling the mysteries of the pathophysiology of brain disorders. By the end of his tenure, despite groundbreaking discoveries in brain science, the implications for care were limited, and Dr. Insel shifted his attention to our failing mental health system, where millions who were desperately in need were left wanting. Recognizing that we have many treatments that work if they are implemented in a timely and effective way, Dr. Insel sees the opportunity for transformative impact. But that’s a big if. Dr. Insel writes with a depth of knowledge about the systemic problems and with a conviction of optimism that we can do much better. It is the definitive work on the state of mental health science and services in the United States today.

3. Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind by Andy Dunn. Courageous. Gripping. Arresting. Heart-wrenching. Hopeful. These are just some of the accolades for Bonobos co-founder and CEO Andy Dunn’s memoir published this year. Burn Rate provides an intimate account of Dunn’s hard-driving and grand ambitions to launch a clothing start-up while simultaneously and fiercely trying to avoid the challenges posed by his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The combination is not pretty. Fortunately, when Dunn hits bottom, he is supported by loved ones who help him reckon with the reality of his condition and see him through to a path of healing. From intense denial to acceptance, Andy Dunn’s candid account of his nightmarish journey is instructive for anyone with bipolar disorder and everyone who cares about someone with bipolar disorder. It is also a testament to the lifesaving and essential contribution of social support in the journey of recovery.

4. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, MD, is based on years of research and clinical practice that began with veterans and expanded to include a broad range of trauma survivors. First published in 2015, The Body Keeps the Score was a watershed publication that transformed how we understand trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. van der Kolk’s work hinges on the idea that trauma is imprinted in the cells of our bodies. The central idea is that exposure to a traumatic event can trigger physiological responses that lead to a hyperactive alarm state. Trauma interferes with brain circuits that involve focus, flexibility, and emotion regulation. This cascade of responses takes up residence in our bodies, leaving trauma survivors feeling paralyzed in a fight or flight response. The Body Keeps the Score is filled with stories that resonate and bring to life the troubling and complex nature of trauma. Dr. van der Kolk’s storytelling has an avuncular voice filled with respect, warmth, and wisdom. It is no wonder that The Body Keeps the Score has been a New York Times bestseller for 120 weeks.

5. Behind Happy Faces: Taking Charge of Your Mental Health by Ross Szabo and Melanie Hall. Things are not always what they seem. That was certainly the case for Ross Szabo, who looked like a happy teenager on the outside but was crumbling within. At age 16, Ross was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with anger control problems and psychotic features. Yet, it was not until the aftermath of his suicide attempt that he accepted and prioritized the help he needed to restore stability and quality of life to his world. Behind Happy Faces is personal and accessible. It will help young people and adults alike understand mental illness, why we hide from it, how it isolates us from others, and how to get the help we need for ourselves or loved ones. Having pursued a degree in psychology, Szabo expertly weaves together intimate details of his own story with solid knowledge of the science to deliver a book that is sure to be lifesaving for many.

Take your pick. These authors tell the truth about mental health and mental illness, whether in the form of fiction, non-fiction, memoir, or history. They are crusaders breaking the silence around mental health. Their stories and voices will help change the narrative as more of us take the time to listen and amplify their message.     

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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