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Graphic Novels and Memoirs That Tackle Mental Health


pile of books with a glass of water on top

As someone who’s been in and out of therapy since she was 20, playing fast and loose with her meds, dodging diagnoses like chronic depression, chronic anxiety, and bipolar disorder, I have a soft spot for books that make me feel seen in that way. That make me feel less strange.

Those of you who read my list of books that are pure joy already know I enjoy titles that temper the darkness of depression with humor. Humor is a defense mechanism I lean into myself, so authors who dabble in dark humor around the topic of mental illness feel like kindred spirits.

But another type of mental health lit I enjoy comes in the form of graphic novels and memoirs.

Because when things feel heavy and I can’t handle another dense book about the general awfulness of the world (and I read these often because I write about sexuality for a living), comics have a lightness to them that helps keep me connected to my bookish ways. Even when they tackle topics that are heavy.

Read on for a list of graphic novels and memoirs that tackle mental health.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh - book cover - drawing of author and her dog against a yellow background

I’ll get this one out of the way first, just because I already mentioned it in a recent post. That one about books that are pure joy. You know the one. ANYWAY. Just to remind you, this graphic memoir tackles tough topics with humor… and with drawings that are so hilariously bad (yet still so expressive), they’ve circled all the way around and attained awesomeness. Allie Brosh recently reemerged into the world with Solutions and Other Problems, a new graphic memoir, but Hyperbole and a Half remains my number one. The book covers a lot of ground, all of which makes me LOL so hard I cry, but it’s her chapters on depression that make me feel particularly seen. The first time I read this book, it felt like Brosh had maybe been living inside my brain this entire time.

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green - book cover - black and white drawing of a young woman walking through the forest, her shadow stretched out long behind her

I picked up this doorstopper of a graphic memoir at Book Expo America one year (R.I.P.) and, though I felt like my shoulder might dislocate itself from my body by the end of the day, the pain was worth it. Lighter Than My Shadow ended up being the best of my entire book haul. In it, Green shares the story of her eating disorder and its steady progression, her growing depression, and those who preyed upon her when she was at her weakest. It’s a powerful account, and an upsetting one, but by the end, Green brings the reader to a place of hope.

Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong

Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong - book cover - drawing of woman in black and white floating in a sea of red apples, with white, cursive text above her

I met Wong at HippoCamp, my favorite creative nonfiction writing conference. Dear Scarlet had recently come out, and Wong was participating in the opening night’s new author reading. She stood up on stage, reading from her book as the panels flashed by on a large screen behind her. Suddenly, she pulled a ukulele from behind the podium and started performing Coldplay’s “Fix You,” whose lyrics appear in her book. It was such a lovely and emotional moment, and I immediately purchased her book once the reading was over. I read it that night, back in my hotel room, in one quick gulp. This quiet story about the author/illustrator’s postpartum depression made me weepy in the way it felt so familiar. I still enjoy following Wong on Instagram, where she posts the most relatable drawings.

In by Will McPhail

In by Will McPhail - book cover - line drawing of a beige young man against a beige background peering through a doorway filled with vivid greenery. Title is in a matching green, all caps, in the upper left corner of the cover.

This book feels so intimate, it reads like a memoir, but it’s actually a graphic novel. Written by McPhail, a regular New Yorker cartoonist, In is about a young man who has trouble connecting with others. It’s only when the protagonist learns to speak from the heart that the world around him really comes alive. I adored McPhail’s use of color in this book, the way it represented the bursts of emotional connection the protagonist experienced in the midst of a life that seemed to unspool in black and white. And the story itself? It moved me to tears.

Feelings by Manjit Thapp

Feelings by Manjit Thapp - book cover - illustration of a brown-skinned woman with gold hoop earrings, a white, collared blouse, and dark hair with her eyes close, against a peach background, lines of color reverberating out from her

In Feelings, Thapp’s moods change as quickly as the weather. I love how she uses the graphic form to chart her emotional life over the course of four seasons. It reads like a poem, one embellished with vivid imagery that only helps to bring alive the range of emotions we move through as humans. Joy. Pain. Anxiety. Pressure. We see them all, and we see also that they’re all valid.

Slip by Marika McCoola and Aatmaja Pandya

Slip by Marika McCoola and Aatmaja Pandya - book cover - illustration of young person in a t-shirt and apron working with clay

I’ll end with this young adult graphic novel that just came out last month. In Slip, a young woman is preparing to leave for an art intensive when her best friend attempts suicide. With her friend in the hospital, she leaves for the intensive anyway, attempting to focus on her work even as she grapples with feelings of grief and anger and confusion. As she struggles to find her artistic voice and even begins to fall in love, she worries she’s leaving her friend behind. These are feelings she doesn’t want to confront, but when her sculptures begin coming alive, forcing her to face her problems, she finds she may have no choice.

As always, leave your own suggestions for graphic novels and memoirs about mental health in the comments because I could always use more titles on my TBR.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, VQR, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of GuerrillaSexEd.org. Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

Comments:

  1. Thank you for this Steph. A couple of neighbor ladies and I have been helping each other through our chronic depression flare-up as well, and I can’t wait to share this piece with them. Ours stem primarily from the situational toxicity of other people so while not graphic novels, just last week I bought for one of them Chase Hill’s ‘Toxic People Survival Guide,’ and for the other Dr. Sherrie Campbell’s ‘Your Pocket Therapist: Quick Hacks for Dealing with Toxic People While Empowering Yourself.’ Will borrow these for myself at some point as well while making my way through about a dozen books bought this year on perpetual narcissistic abuse PTSD recovery. Thank you thank you thank you Steph for addressing Mental Health and helping to shatter the stigma. Sometimes I feel like nobody gets it but all these authors do, my two fem neighbors do, and you do. Love you.

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