You’re Not Alone: Tender Novels about Mental Health to Comfort, Validate and Inspire


When you’re feeling down or downright depressed, there’s often nothing better than curling up in bed with a comforting book — a story that understands you, offers you hope or comfort, and doesn’t push you too far intellectually or emotionally. Here are a handful of sensitive novels about mental health that offer just that.

Sweet Bean Paste: The Power of Intergenerational Friendships

  • Feel-good rating: 4 stars
  • Writing rating: 3 stars

Sentaro has a job he despises, running a small Japanese bakery in an effort to run from his failure to become a writer. It takes the elderly Tokue to get him to realise the potential of his work and pour love into the intricate recipe for sweet bean paste.

Tokue worms her way into Sentaro’s heart and injects new vigour into his life. But she’s got scars from the past, too, and Sentaro must find the courage to look to the country’s hushed-up treatment of polio patients and the prejudice that lingers.

Sweet Bean Paste is about finding meaning in what may seem mundane, as well as appreciating and protecting the vulnerabilities of others, even when you yourself are in pain. The writing is warm and sensitive. This gentleness is echoed in rich descriptions of the natural world which give rhythm to the various cycles of life the characters are in.

How to Fall in Love: Romance & Mental Health Can Mix

  • Feel-good rating: 4 stars
  • Writing rating: 4 stars

When Christine stops Adam from jumping off a bridge, it’s based on the promise that she gets him to love life again within two weeks. It’s a tall order. (His girlfriend has cheated on him with his best friend, he’s about to lose the job he loves and the approaching death of his father means he’ll have to head the family company he resents.) And Christine’s not as self-actualised as she seems either.

The somewhat whimsical premise of this meet-cute takes the sting off the recurring, very serious theme of suicide. Never flippant, How to Fall in Love is a gentle take on a difficult topic. Christine is so sincere and considered in her approach to Adam that you soon realise that her promise is not naivety but sheer desperation for herself, reflected onto another human being.

It’s tempting to compare Cecilia Ahern to better-known Irish author Marian Keyes. Both write about social issues and centre women. But How to Fall in Love, though funny at times, is even gentler and a tad rawer.

A Small Silence: Cocooning at an Extreme

  • Feel-good rating: 3 stars
  • Writing rating: 3 stars

When Prof is released from prison, he removes to his father’s old house where he switches off the lights, keeping his mother and best friend at bay. That’s until Desire gets news of his release and begins visiting the man who first inspired her love of learning as a young girl. In the darkness, they speak with passion and despair about their country.

The chapters from Prof’s POV are lyrical and reflective, while those from Desire’s bustle with the sounds and struggles of contemporary Lagos. Both characters are struggling with trauma from their past. Interestingly, the intimate connection they form is bolstered as much by their imaginings of each other as by their in-person encounters.

A Small Silence’s innovative premise emphasises the importance of company (whether imagined or real) and cocooning. The novel is not particularly uplifting but it is gentle. It is particularly valuable in validating the mental health struggles of activists without dwelling too much on the actual socio-economic environment of a developing country (which can be mentally challenging in itself).

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: Humorous Take on Trauma and Resilience

  • Feel-good rating: 5 stars
  • Writing rating: 5 stars

We’re all guilty of answering, “fine, thanks,” untruthfully when asked how we are. On the surface, Eleanor Oliphant’s life is perfectly ordinary. But her poor social skills and isolation soon reveal an existence troubled by the struggle to confront a past trauma.

Eleanor’s history is an intense tragedy but the novel is told with humour that manages also not to be crass or flippant. Every sentence bubbles with Eleanor’s frank personality. She’s equally articulate and proper whether correcting a colleague’s manners or purchasing her very first smartphone.

Gail Honeyman reveals with stunning perceptiveness both the depths of human despair and the triumphs of human resilience as she relays how far the mind can go to make meaning of even the most difficult of circumstances. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a take on loneliness and trauma that’s refreshing in its candour and funniness. Without a doubt, it’s one of the very best novels about mental health.

The Midnight Library: Whimsical Meditation on Regrets and Second Chances

  • Feel-good rating: 4 stars
  • Writing rating: 5 stars

When Nora commits suicide, she doesn’t quite die. Rather, she visits a library, an in-between space where she’s given the opportunity to explore all the roads her life could have taken, had she made different decisions.

As she drifts from Olympic athlete to beloved mother, from Australia to the Arctic, she finds fault in choices she had previously regretted passing up on. She learns and unlearns truths about herself and her relationships, under the guidance of sage librarian, Mrs Elm.

A meditation on the damage of regret and loneliness, and a metaphor for the hard work that goes into self-love, The Midnight Library will resonate with anyone contemplating their lives or doing profound inner work. It’s philosophical but, thanks to the premise of the library full of choices (based on the theory of the multiverse), it’s never abstract. Characters, relationships and a solid plot make it an engaging read.

The Midnight Library is written with a rare sensitivity that is both piercingly perceptive and soothingly gentle. The author, Matt Haig, is a suicide survivor and mental health advocate who has written a handful of books. Take a look at his Instagram for snippets from the book.

Beautiful World, Where Are You? The Individual Burden of Weltschmerz

  • Feel-good rating: 4 stars
  • Writing rating: 5 stars

Alice and Eileen have been friends since university. When Alice moves to the Irish countryside after a time in a clinic, she meets Felix, while Eileen confronts the truth of her feelings for childhood friend Simon. As they navigate love and career pressure, they share poignant emails, reflecting on the state of humanity and what the future looks like.

Not to worry, though, the book isn’t solely epistolary. Dialogue and descriptions evoke sharply vivid, relatable, feelings and are used with such sparseness that there is a meditative stillness that hangs over the entire story.

This is a tender novel about how we make meaning of existential issues related to climate change, capitalism and general Weltschmerz.

Readers who enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Normal People will not be disappointed. The relationships are rich and intense, and develop subtly as the four characters grapple with their individuality and how that fits in their relationships.

Choose Your Novel About Mental Health and Read On


As we continue to grapple with challenges around mental health, novels are using escapism, humour, reflexivity, nature and imagination to bring to life both the challenges and glimpses of hope.  The magic of books is in their ability to relate to our immediate lives so, if you’re feeling unwell, one of these novels may just have some words of wisdom for you.

Remember:  However soothing they may be, novels about mental health cannot replace professional support. If you need immediate support, contact Life-Line (086 132 2322: Toll free-24 hours), SADAG (0800 567 567: Toll-free 8 am-8 pm), Suicide Crisis Help-Line (0800 567 567: Toll-free 8 am-8 pm/Sms Help-Line:31393), Substance Abuse Helpline (0800 121314: Toll-free 24 hours), a government ambulance (10177) or  ER24 (at own cost: 084 124 or 8110).

Jenna Solomon

Jenna is a journalism, African studies and social development graduate. She writes about active citizenship and lifestyle in South Africa.

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