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Everyone knows I love cozy mysteries, but I also love mysteries and thrillers with a mental health component. After all, my life’s work is devoted to working with children and families grappling with social and emotional needs and mental health is a major aspect of that. COVID-19 brought to the forefront the desperate need for both more mental health services as well as improved accessibility and availability to services in the United States. Hopefully, this need won’t be ignored once “normal” resumes as COVID-19 merely exacerbated a need that already existed. One trend I’ve been thrilled to see in the book publishing industry is increased attention to mental health issues and I’d like to highlight just a few books recently that have included mental health as part of the storyline in some capacity.
The Helping Hands series by Annelise Ryan is quickly becoming one of my favorites as it features a social worker as the heroine. In NIGHT SHIFT, it’s only Hildy Schneider’s second official night on her new grant-funded side job riding alongside the local police officers with her canine therapy dog, Roscoe when trouble strikes. Hildy is a social worker and she hopes to turn this new job into a full-time job but in the meantime, she’s learning to balance her duties between her law enforcement job and her work at the local hospital. However, her second night on the job she encounters a patient well-known to her, Danny Hildebrand, who appears to be having another schizophrenic episode. Unfortunately, some of Danny’s hallucinations seem to match a murder scene discovered later that evening. Hildy has her own therapeutic needs, such as her quirk of stealing small food items, and sees a therapist herself. It’s refreshing to see this addressed in a storyline without judgment, and Annelise Ryan provides enough contextual details to help readers understand Hildy’s past and her awareness of her own stress triggers.
I absolutely love the attention that Annelise Ryan is giving to the social work profession and mental health overall! Annelise Ryan provides a bit of myth-busting about schizophrenia when Hildy points out the differences she sees in Danny’s current breakdown as opposed to the ones he typically has when his medications are off, as well as information on how and why individuals with schizophrenia will often stop taking medication. The information is smoothly incorporated into the storyline for maximum enjoyment and is extremely relevant to the plot itself. Even better, we watch Hildy wrestling with the sticky ethical issues that social workers can encounter, particularly when she has such different roles in her two jobs. It’s a personal pet peeve of mine when professionals take unorthodox, unexplained, or unethical approaches to situations in books and I thoroughly appreciate that Annelise Ryan is maintaining the integrity of both Hildy and the profession of social work in NIGHT SHIFT.
Lynette Eason addresses the sensitive issues of suicide and PTSD in the phenomenal romantic suspense thriller, ACCEPTABLE RISK. A hostage situation in Afghanistan sends Gavin Black in to rescue Sarah Denning, a woman he’s never forgotten after she dated and then abruptly ghosted him. Sarah returns home to the awful news that her brother has committed suicide and that her father has ended her military career. As a journalist and bereaved sister, Sarah can’t resist following up on her brother’s suicide as the pieces just don’t fit together, even as she is grappling with her own mental health issues.
Sarah has PTSD, and Lynette Eason doesn’t shy away from including the nightmares and fears that Sarah faces as she deals with the aftereffects of trauma. We also see the grief and trauma for the family left behind after a completed suicide, as Sarah, her brother, and her father all try to cope with what happened to Dustin and why. Lynette Eason takes risks with her characters and isn’t afraid to show them living and thriving with disabilities, albeit whether they are physical or emotional, making her one of my go-to authors. ACCEPTABLE RISK is an enjoyable and fast-paced read, peppered with lots of emotions.
Heather Gudenkauf is another author who has a knack for delving into societal and mental health issues in her storylines and THIS IS HOW I LIED is yet another example. The 1995 murder of Eve Knox has haunted the town of Grotto, Iowa, but now in 2020 new evidence has been found. Eve was only 16-years-old when her body was found in the Ransom Caves. Despite numerous accusations against Eve’s boyfriend, Nick, Brady, by Eve’s sister, Nola, and her mother, Charlotte, the murderer was never found. Maggie Kennedy-O’Keefe was Eve’s best friend and the police chief’s daughter (at the time of the murder), and she’s now a police officer herself. Maggie is also pregnant and needs to go on desk duty, which is why Chief Digby agrees to let her handle Eve’s case. After all, the only lead to pursue is sending the new evidence, along with the older evidence, to the lab to look for DNA or any other clues that were technologically unavailable at the time. However, the death of Eve has rooted itself deep into the community as dark and hidden secrets are about to come to light.
Mental health isn’t directly addressed in THIS IS HOW I LIED (unlike in some of Heather Gudenkauf’s other works), but it permeates the storyline as we uncover dark secrets and anguishes that have been hidden and repressed for years. None of the characters are truly likable and yet it’s their perseverance despite the horrible circumstances they face that keeps the reader engaged and hoping against hope that each character will succeed despite their pasts. Nola, Eve’s sister, in particular, has mental health issues that come up as the story unfolds. Heather Gudenkauf’s gift at crafting misdirections, unreliable narrators, and a strong suspenseful atmosphere permeates the storyline, making THIS IS HOW I LIED hard to put down. If you love dark thrillers with strange characters and lots of surprising twists and turns, then look no further than THIS IS HOW I LIED.
What are some books you enjoy that feature mental health issues, particularly ones in a mystery or suspense genre? I’m always looking for more recommendations as you just can’t have enough books to read!