Public health expert and author Timothy Caulfield calls our existence “life in the age of anxiety” – and the pandemic has certainly exacerbated a worldwide mental health crisis.
You might not be convinced that feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem or depression can be alleviated via a book, but this year’s best titles on the subject of mental health have tended to focus on lived experience. They are all the more powerful for it.
Inspirational books from Matt Haig, Bryony Gordon and Marcus Rashford discuss the importance of hope through hard-won lessons they have learnt. Oliver Burkeman and Caulfield both tackle the minefield of everyday distractions and worries, while Nedra Glover Tawwab’s Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself is perhaps a more obvious "how to" guide to mental well-being.
In light of World Mental Health Day, which falls today, here are six books that offer succour, food for thought and routes to happiness in troubled times.
'The Comfort Book' by Matt Haig
Haig had a breakdown in his twenties and was one step away from ending his personal hell of depression and anxiety. His slow recovery and realisation that mental illness is something you go through, rather than who you are, led this novelist to write two bestselling non-fiction explorations into mental health; Reasons to Stay Alive and Notes on a Nervous Planet.
His new book is a distillation of all his hard-won consolations and lessons learnt over the past 20 years. A collection of nuggets, aphorisms and even the odd comforting playlist, dipping into The Comfort Book is like listening to a wise friend who knows exactly the right thing to say about the stresses and strains of modern life. Yes, there are a few well-worn maxims, but on the whole Haig teases out the inner strength, resilience and hope he firmly believes we all have inside.
'Relax, Dammit! A User’s Guide to Life in the Age of Anxiety' by Timothy Caulfield
Canadian public health expert and Netflix star Caulfield believes that the thousands of decisions we make every day are dictated by beliefs or worries about the world that have no basis in reality. His coping techniques – basically don’t let fear and risk dominate and don’t strive for illusory perfection – are somehow common sense and completely attainable, yet not cliched.
Cleverly packaging Relax as a hour-by-hour guide to a day complements this approach; it seems obvious that if you’re anxious it might be best not to doomscroll Twitter the moment you wake up, for example. But perhaps we need Caulfield to remind us.
There’s also a pandemic addendum looking at how fragile our relationship with actual evidence can be, and the perils of misinformation. Caulfield asks us to step back, relax, reflect and then make decisions, rather than simply form shareable opinions. We might find that we’re better, calmer people for it.
'Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It' by Oliver Burkeman
Written down in cold-hard numbers, it’s a sobering statistic: in an average human lifespan we get 4,000 attempts at each day of the week. How we go about travelling through those days in a meaningful way is Burkeman’s thesis in this excellent meld of self-help and philosophy.
Arguing that most of our anxieties come from an uncomfortable sense that we might be wasting one of those 4,000 Mondays through various distractions – “existential overwhelm” as he calls it – Burkeman suggests embracing our limitations as a way of avoiding the constant pull towards impossible versions of ourselves. Or put another way, repurposing the fear of missing out into the joy of living in the moment – and doing what you can, well.
'Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself' by Nedra Glover Tawwab
American therapist and relationship counsellor Tawwab’s debut was an instant New York Times bestseller this year, and it’s not difficult to see why. Tawwab has tapped into what can only be called a crisis in self-confidence, as people struggle to be themselves or to be heard in their workplaces or relationships.
Her book is a guide to making verbal or behavioural statements – boundaries, effectively – that help to overcome these difficulties and allow people to feel comfortable, safe and protected in their relationships with others. Of course, actually taking the step to set these boundaries is hard, and Tawwab is an engaging, reassuring guide.
Backed by the latest cognitive behavioural therapy research, she encourages the idea that setting healthy boundaries isn’t only about saying no, but expressing our needs clearly and without apology.
'No Such Thing as Normal' by Bryony Gordon
Much like Haig, sometimes the best insight into mental wellness comes from people who have learnt to live with mental illness. That’s basically the premise of Gordon’s book published at the beginning of 2021 – at a time when most people’s Covid-19-related anxieties, including her own, were through the roof.
Taking us through her own techniques in lively, accessible and friendly prose, Gordon takes on sleep, worry, medication, self-image, therapy, learnt behaviour and mindfulness in a way that not only gives pause for thought, but offers practical tools and information for those who feel alone. Gordon calls herself an “accidental mental health advocate,” but the lessons she’s learnt are hugely valuable.
'You Are a Champion: How to Be the Best You Can Be' by Marcus Rashford
It’s fair to say Manchester United footballer Rashford has become an inspiration off the pitch as much as on it, his campaigns for free school meals effecting genuine change in the UK. His first book, written with Carl Anka, capitalises on his cache with young people to encourage them to think positively about the potential waiting to be unlocked in everyone.
With stories and lessons from Rashford’s own life combined with tips from performance psychologist Katie Warriner, this is inspirational stuff for anyone; less a guide in how to be Marcus Rashford and more a self-help manual that celebrates the great things everyone does and can do. It deals with setbacks in young people, and encourages the belief that everyone should be allowed to have dreams. “Look across the horizon,” as he memorably puts it.