Increase in mental health publishing reflects 'cultural change'

Increase in mental health publishing reflects 'cultural change'

Publishers have identified a rising trend for books exploring mental health issues, with a swathe of new titles commissioned aimed at children and teens.

Publishers The Bookseller has spoken to said the book trend was the result of a "culture change" in the UK with more figures in the public eye speaking out about mental health concerns, with the media and government also "waking up" to the topic.

Figures from Nielsen BookScan show that Self-Improvement category is up 73.75% to £4.46m over the 53 weeks of 2015, while Popular Psychology was up 5.51% to £11.3m over 2015.

The BBC is currently devoting two weeks of its schedule to the subject and said mental health was "fast becoming one of the great issues of our time with growing numbers of people in the UK seeking help”. Politicians have also pledged an extra £1bn a year this week to treating mental health by 2020.

Venetia Butterfield, who heads up newly launched imprint Penguin Life, said there was "absolutely" an upward trend for books commissioned in the area of mental health, because "more people are suffering from mental health issues and often at a younger age."

She said: "There has also been a cultural shift in that there is less of a stigma - people are prepared to talk about it, the media are more interested, governments are waking up to a worrying trend. Much of that has to do with campaigners - organisations and individuals like Ruby Wax who was awarded an OBE last year for her mental health work."

Andrew McAleer, a publisher devoted to psychology for Robinson, part of Piatkus Constable Robinson, agreed, saying it seems that "other publishers are just catching up to this now". McAleer's list has published the Overcoming series for the last 20 years, which tackles different kinds of mental health conditions and has sold nearly 1.6m copies. He is currently working on a spin off series, offering courses on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in book form, called “Helping Your Child”, with titles focused on helping parents to help their children navigate “emotional difficulties”.

McAleer said: "There is an increase in publishing in this area and it's one that I welcome, because it is raising awareness. I think over the years there has been a chipping away at the taboo of mental health issues and more people are willing to openly admit they have a mental health condition and actively seek help for it." 

He added: "Our sales have always been steady but we've been reaching more people, I feel. It's really been getting out there." 

Butterfield said it was "essential" more books were published on the topic of mental health, because "a book can often reach a wider audience than an individual practitioner could ever hope to reach in a lifetime." She added: "I feel passionately about this area and we are publishing many more books that broadly deal with mental health... memoirs that bring these issues to life, practitioners who work in these areas, scientists and academics that study mental health - all of which will broaden our understanding."

Key authors credited with bringing the “genre” into its own include Matt Haig, whose book Reasons to Stay Alive (Canongate) has sold close to 90,000 copies through Nielsen TCM, and writer and comedian Ruby Wax, whose book Sane New World (Hodder), released in 2014, sold over 100,000 copies through Nielsen BookScan. Her latest book published this January with Penguin Life, called A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, has already sold over 20,000 units. The book was written during her first bout of the illness in seven years.

Carole Tonkinson, publisher for Pan Macmillan’s wellness imprint Bluebird, said there was "definitely" an upward trend for books in the mental health area. "Matt Haig did a great service for our understanding of depression and in helping people to understand it’s an illness, it deserves compassion and sympathy and we all need to get to grips with it," she said. "I’m delighted about having a mental health minister. It feels like a real culture change in the UK, which is brilliant in terms of the parity of funding. And it’s no surprise that publishing, memoirs in particular, and other books like those by Ruby Wax, are falling right into that.” 

Emma Smith for Orion non-fiction was more hesitant to identify the shift in the conversation as a "trend" but agreed it was becoming "more mainstream". She said: "In a way it is a trend, but I think it's a more natural thing that people are talking about it more, and I think it will just continue to grow and become more mainstream, as a normal thing for people to talk about...I think it's just that people - the government and the media - are waking up to the fact that the impact of mental health is huge and just how many people are affected by it."

There are an increasing number of titles tailored towards the children's and YA market on the subject of mental health, publishers have said. Bonnier imprint Hot Key Books has recently published a guide to mental health for teenagers, Mind Your Head by Juno Dawson with added information and support from clinical psychologist Dr Olivia Hewitt. Other examples include Penguin Life’s Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts, designed to "empower" children, teens and young adults, and including chapters for the parents and teachers of introverted children and a new illustrated title from Orion by Ruby Elliot known as “Rubyetc”, a book of “darkly comic but wonderfully uplifting” drawings shining a light on mental health issues (below).

Tonkinson, who is also in her fourth year of an MA in psychotherapy, said there "definitely should be things in the YA space in terms of really good non fiction books to help kids who are navigating these waters".

"Our stressful lives put more pressure on people, as we see with social media and kids," she said. "There was a time they might come home from school, shut the door and drop on the couch, and not have to deal with all their class mates. You now see kids who feel like they have to compete or have a certain life. Certainly, speaking as a parent, children are facing different challenges than any of us had."

Yellow Kite publisher Liz Gough agreed. She said: "There seems to be a rise in teenage mental health issues. I think teenagers are under immense stress and strain, and - I'm not saying I have the book yet - but it is an interesting area. I do see, from my own conversations with people, there will be a book that tackles that out there. Graduates who are leaving uni with huge amounts of debt and worries about what their future holds.... a book they can turn to would be incredibly valuable." 

McAleer said Robinson was keen to "innovate to reach more people", whether devising books for conditions it hasn't yet covered or for "specific populations". Examples could include books for elderly people, for carers, and for military veterans. He is also trying to reach children and young people with mental conditions. 

"We're trying to do shorter books or illustrated books to reach people in a different way when a big self-help volume might be a bit too daunting, and to address different literacy levels," he said.

It has been suggested that the success behind colouring-in and mindfulness titles – two of last year’s biggest trends – is also linked with a perceived rise of modern-day stress, exacerbated by the "247" digital world in which we live.

Gough said: "I think [colouring in and mindfulness books] feed into mental health in a big way. The colouring-in phenomenon is partly fuelled by the fact people want to do something to take them away from their phone. We're all sitting hunched over our screens, and colouring-in offered people a way for people to be creative, be mindful and be in the zone." 

Yellow Kite is publishing The Mindful Book of Origami in April, announced as "a new trend to rival crafty calmness nationwide".

Smith concluded: "I think it's our job as publishers to find these standout authors with strong voices and to support and develop and amplify the good work they're doing. And the more awareness gained, the more mainstream [talking about] mental health becomes the better."