The 5 Best Books for Understanding Depression

The 5 Best Books for Understanding Depression: True Stories from True Survivors

Browse the psychology section of any bookstore, and you’ll find dozens of titles on depression. Many are written by psychologists or psychiatrists who have drawn their straightforward, practical advice from years of working with depressed clients and staying current with the latest research. Certainly, these books have value; they can help clarify a diagnosis or explain the effects of different classes of antidepressants. But what if the author knows depression only from a clinician’s perspective? What if she has never experienced the illness herself?

If you’re already feeling isolated by your depression, or if a loved one’s depressed behavior has you frightened and confused, you might benefit from true stories by people who have actually lived through the illness. The following is a comparison of 5 books (in no particular order) by skilled storytellers who convey the anguish of the disorder and the triumph of recovery in very different ways. Each has its strengths and its flaws; all are worth reading by anyone with an interest in the mind’s fragility and the heart’s amazing ability to find hope even in its darkest moments.

Note: This list is not intended as a replacement for treatment. If you think you may be depressed, contact a physician or therapist as soon as possible. If you think you may a danger to yourself or others, call your local suicide hotline IMMEDIATELY.

Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel

Many critics felt this book offered a bit too much information on the twentysomething author’s struggles with depression; they considered Wurtzel so whiny and self-absorbed that they couldn’t bring themselves to care about what she’d been through. I agree that Prozac Nation is not a great work of literature, but it features two things which no other memoir of depression that I know of can offer: a snappy pace and a terrific sense of humor. Wurtzel has a smart-alecky style and a real gift for scenewriting: she brings you inside the awfulness of depression but still manages to finds plenty to laugh about, often at her own expense. My guess is, if you’re under 30, you’ll probably love it; if you’re over 30, you might just hate it.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron

If a literary style is more your speed, Darkness Visible might be the book for you. This brief memoir recounts Styron’s experience with suicidal depression, which ultimately landed him in the hospital. The prose is dignified, even restrained, as one might expect from a renowned man of letters; and Styron’s sense of shame and confusion over finding himself unable to cope with everyday demands is truly heartrending. My only complaint is that Styron doesn’t quite let the reader in: he holds you at arm’s length, as if he’s still too ashamed to divulge the details of his illness, and often chooses to intellectualize rather than illuminate. Still, the details he does reveal and his philosophical musings make this book an important addition to the literature of depression.

Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface by Martha Manning

This memoir wasn’t a bestselling phenomenon like the two mentioned above, but fortunately it hasn’t been overlooked altogether; I feel it deserves a much wider audience. Manning is a clinical psychologist who at first fails to recognize the warning signs of her own illness-until the day she realizes that she’s in worse shape than the client she’s treating for depression. She tries every conceivable drug combination without success. Finally, knowing she’s dangerously suicidal, she agrees to what’s considered the last resort: electroconvulsive therapy. Manning finds humor in her story, but it’s a quieter, more mature kind of humor than Wurtzel’s. And unlike Styron, she invites you fully into her world: the daily demands of career and family; the complicated mix of out-of-control emotions, dark thoughts, and unpleasant physical sensations which typically signals a depressive episode; and the up-and-down quality of recovery. Manning’s style is clear, honest, and straightforward. Particularly moving are the scenes in which she tries to explain to her husband and teenage daughter what she’s going through. This is a book which has something to say to everyone.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison

Though Jamison has bipolar disorder, or manic depression, this memoir has much to offer those who suffer from the lows but not the highs. Her story is similar in some respects to Manning’s: Jamison is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of mood disorders-yet it takes years before she recognizes her own illness. When she finally seeks treatment, she’s already an established expert in the study of bipolar disorder: how can she possibly reveal her own condition without wrecking her career? Jamison’s depiction of the depressive cycle of her illness is both graceful and chilling, especially when she describes the suicidal state of mind. Her background in poetry shines through her prose; she is precise but never detached. Jamison is a highly accomplished woman, but she makes it clear that a mood disorder can strike anyone-and when it does, professional achievements, external rewards, and even the love of family and friends cannot cure the illness.

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

This National Book Award-winning title covers an astounding array of material. Solomon weaves in his personal history of depression with research on every conceivable aspect of depression: conventional treatments, alternative therapies, the biochemical underpinnings of suicidal urges, a history of philosophers’ and psychologists’ views of depression as they’ve changed over the centuries, the impact of the illness on society, and more. He includes numerous interviews with researchers, clinicians, and people who suffer from depression, including Martha Manning. The book is beautifully written, moving from personal experience to statistics without missing a beat. It’s simply indispensible.

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