May is Mental Health Awareness Month and there are plenty of graphic novel reads to observe the month. One way to delve into mental health themes is to read about different perspectives and experiences. Graphic novels, particularly graphic memoirs, have so much to offer for exploring mental health topics. Reflecting on mental health in graphic memoirs and novels is nothing new with titles like Stitches by David Small and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel coming to mind amongst so many others.
In recent years there have been quite a few titles that feature storylines with characters sharing personal narratives through self-reflection. Many of these graphic novels weave aspects of mental health into their storylines amongst other life experiences while others make mental health a focal point. Here are just a few introspective graphic memoir and novel reads exploring mental health in a variety of ways.
All of these books deal with heavy topics, so please give yourself space as you explore, read and process. Many of these books have author’s notes in the beginning about their content and recommendations for relevant additional resources that should be read before diving in. Also be sure to check the back of the books as most of them have enlightening notes and additional content from the authors.
And Now I Spill the Family Secrets is a graphic memoir by author and illustrator Margaret Kimball that explores their family history with mental illness, beginning with unraveling the family secrecy surrounding her mother's attempted suicide in 1988 when she was just four years old. This intimate memoir focuses on finding healing through understanding as Kimball weaves together family memories, accounts and artifacts. The panel layouts and use of timelines make Kimball’s investigative process a unique read.
In the graphic memoir and CPL Best Books of 2020 title Come Home, Indio, author and illustrator Jim Terry recounts his life from early childhood, focusing on family dynamics, cultural identity, generational trauma and the urge to find stability. Taking place between Chicagoland, where his Irish American father’s family lives, and the Wisconsin Dells, where his Native American mother’s family connections are the strongest, Terry seeks to understand both his and his family’s experiences with alcoholism and what it means for himself. Terry has an expressive illustration style that places you in the moment as he recounts memories and experiences (some of which are pretty heavy, so again give yourself contemplative space).
Using soft water color-inspired illustrations, author and illustrator Briana Loewinsohn's Ephemera ebbs and flows through her life’s stages, recounting fuzzy childhood memories and feelings of loneliness. Loewinsohn reflects on her relationship with her mother, who struggled with mental illness, by exploring her strong personal connection to the natural world. The dreamlike style of this graphic memoir, which reads much like a picture book, is so distinct and meaningful to the author’s experiences as she strives to understand her past self and her relationship with her mother.
From Debbie Tung, the bestselling author and illustrator of Quiet Girl in a Noisy World, Everything Is OK is a collection of short comics centered on day-to-day experiences with anxiety and depression. Tung blends her journey of self-understanding with self-care accolades that will reach readers where they are. Illustrations articulate Tung's emotions and experiences, and her artistic style brings in pops of color during moments of comfort as she moves through her journey.
In. by New Yorker Cartoonist Will McPhail is a fiction slice-of-life graphic novel centered around a socially awkward, millennial hipster-type character named Nick Moss and how he interacts with others. As Nick works through anxieties and self-perception, McPhail incorporates expressive landscapes and lush coloring during Nick's most reflective moments. Though not specifically centered on mental health, Nick's focus on understanding how he interacts with the world and others around him shares the introspective quality of other titles exploring mental health themes.
Using shading and a cool tone color palette, author and illustrator Deb JJ (Jung-Jin) Lee works through their adolescent experiences as a Korean American and the ways mental health impacts their life as they grow into an independent adult in their graphic memoir In Limbo. What started as a weekend project (a four-page comic on Twitter about transgenerational language barriers) grew into an over five-year therapeutic self-reflection diving into identity, mental health, friendships and family. There are some dark moments and plenty of deeply personal recollections, but by the end Lee finds self-understanding and leaves readers with plenty to think about.
An introspective look at six months of cartoonist Zoe Thorogood’s recent life and her ongoing experiences with depression and anxiety, It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth pushes artistic and story-telling boundaries. This graphic memoir is a stunning exploration of self and mental health that changes artistic styles and literary direction as Thorogood works through her inner dialogue. Thorogood’s illustrative technique and ricochet-like pacing gives this book a boundless look and feel quite unlike any other graphic memoir. This book is a truly immersive reading experience centered on mental health that does not shy away from all the messy complexities of life with depression and anxiety.
After being recently diagnosed with anxiety and depression, first-year college student Hannah begins her therapeutic journey in the graphic novel Side Effects written by Ted Anderson. Inspired by Anderson's own experiences, Hannah starts therapy with a goal of finding a medication that is a good fit. With each medication she tries, she experiences a new set of side effects, some of which are somehow fantastical and otherworldly. This is a unique take on mental health, especially from a medication standpoint, and worth checking out (pun intended) if you are looking for something less grounded in reality. Be sure to read the extra content in the back of the book for this one. It's very insightful and brings additional context to Hannah's story.
Looking for more reads that touch on mental health? Check out the Introspective Graphic Novel Reads Exploring Mental Health book list.
What are some comics or graphic novels you would recommend for Mental Health Awareness Month? Let us know in the comments below.