Top 10 books about depression | Alex Riley

From Robert Burton’s 17th-century Anatomy of Melancholy to new insights from Ed Bullmore, these are welcome guides to one of the loneliest experiences

In the autumn of 2015, I felt numb, worthless, and had thoughts of ending my life. I was 25 years old and I was experiencing my first bout of depression, an illness that has ebbed and flowed ever since. At first, I was hesitant to take medication and opted for a course of cognitive behavioural therapy. I worried that medication would dampen my brain, dull my experience of the world and my ability to describe it. Only later did I find that the right drug is a key tool for my career. When I’m stable I can write. When I’m depressed, I can barely walk or talk.

There are many writers who have struggled with depression and still had successful careers: William Styron, JK Rowling, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Samuel Johnson, to name just a few. While the link between mental illness and creative writing has become a stereotype – a ruminating mind that skirts the extremes of mood and suffering can make for bold and creative books – there is also the possibility that the life of a writer is a seedbed for depression. With variable income, social isolation, disturbed sleep, and constant critical judgment from readers and peers, is it any wonder that writers are particularly prone to this illness?

For me, this ignores the positives of the occupation. In writing A Cure for Darkness: The Story of Depression and How We Treat It, I found stability in purpose. I felt free to explore topics as diverse as the history of ECT, the role of psychedelic drugs in psychiatry, and even to travel to Zimbabwe to meet a group of grandmothers who stand at the forefront of a revolution in mental healthcare.

I’m far from the first person to find that writing books can be a salve for the suffering mind. In the 17th century, Robert Burton researched and wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy to keep his mind from slipping into the very topic on which he focused his attention. For its breadth and timelessness, his tome is the first of my Top 10. From this historical foundation, I then travel through a diversity of voices and experiences, each representing a milestone in how we understand, treat, and de-stigmatise depression. As one of the loneliest human experiences, and paradoxically one of the most common, the understanding to be found in these books can offer a vital kind of company for the isolated sufferer.

1. The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
Burton, a scholar living in Oxford in the 17th century, spent his entire life adding to and refining this book. It’s not just a comment on depression and its treatment but considers melancholy as a state of mind that spans everything from sadness to madness. The whole spectrum of depression, in other words. Notions of black bile and spirit vapours aside, it is surprisingly modern in its advice: exercise more, occupy your mind, reconnect with nature, eat well.

2. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
After giving birth to her first child in 1885, Perkins Gilman sank into a deep depression. “I would rather have had a baby every week than suffer as I suffered in my mind,” she wrote in her autobiography. “A constant dragging weariness miles below zero. Absolute incapacity. Absolute misery.” Her treatment and her sense that she was close to becoming psychotic led to this novella, which only became a classic after her death. It is a chilling account of postpartum psychosis and depression, and how women’s mental health has long been misunderstood and neglected.

William Styron.
Classic insight … William Styron. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

3. Darkness Visible by William Styron
At only 98 pages long in my edition, this is by far the shortest book I’ve read on depression. It is a classic insight into the “typical”, melancholic depression. But it is also a reminder of recovery from a deep sense of hopelessness. Antidepressants saved Styron. Self-aware, he also provides a reminder that memoirs are often ill-equipped in the discussion around his condition: “Depression is much too complex in its cause, its symptoms and its treatment for unqualified conclusions to be drawn from the experience of a single individual,” he writes.

4. The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon
An encyclopedia of depression that is astounding in its breadth and intimacy. It includes harrowing moments when Solomon, struggling with his own depression, tries to contract HIV from a homeless person as he believes he is only worthy of death.

5. Love at Goon Park by Deborah Blum
The work of Harry Harlow and his separation experiments with monkeys are infamous. The wire-cage mother, the clown-like faces, and the baby monkey clinging to the inanimate chest are symbols of animal cruelty in science. Blum provides a cinematic exploration of Harlow’s life and career, revealing his own struggles with depression and how his work helped reveal the importance of love and attachment in mental health.

6. A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi
A welcome reminder of the potential benefits of mental illness in society. Whether it’s empathy, courage, or leadership in a crisis, the idea that people with a history of depression can perform better than people without such an experience is compelling. It’s just a shame that this book focused entirely on male leaders with mental illness. Could Ghaemi have covered the work of Jane Addams, for example, someone who battled through depression and was awarded a Nobel prize for her humanitarian work?

Personal journey … Kay Redfield Jamison.
Personal journey … Kay Redfield Jamison. Photograph: Robert Sherbow/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

7. An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
A personal journey through mental illness and the clinical psychologist and author’s struggles to accept that medication was the right option for her. Manic depression (or bipolar disorder) is very different from “unipolar” depression but still shares much of the same stigma, life choices and treatments.

8. Thrive by Richard Layard and David M Clark
For anyone looking for information on the power of cognitive behavioural therapy, this is one of the most up-to-date accounts of how it works, when it should be used, and how long its effects can last. For the right person, CBT can overturn the negative thoughts that cause and maintain a depressive episode.

9. Shock by Kitty Dukakis and Larry Tye
While Dukakis provides a personal account of severe depression and its treatment with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), Tye brings a journalist’s broader perspective to the evidence behind this stigmatised treatment. Together, they make a compelling – and balanced – argument for its continued use, especially for severe depressions that don’t respond to other, less aggressive treatments.

10. The Inflamed Mind by Ed Bullmore
An accessible insight into psychoneuroimmunology, the study of inflammation, the brain and mental illness. While the subtitle, A Radical New Approach to Depression, suggests that this is a new science, it actually emerged decades ago and, as the author explains, has now found support from numerous fields of study. Epidemiology, immunology and trials into anti-inflammatories are finding that a subset of depressions stem from low-grade chronic inflammation.

  • A Cure for Darkness: The Story of Depression and How We Treat It by Alex Riley is published by Ebury Press. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.

  • In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

Alex Riley

The GuardianTramp

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