All of these stories have a main character with some form of mental illness. It could be depression, long term mental illness, or a mental strain that suddenly causes insanity.
Sometimes the character’s perceptions are presented to us, other times we’re shown the effects of their problem on themselves and others. Some stories have characters who are seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Also included are stories with characters who live with some kind of psychological barrier. They might be getting psychotherapy or dealing with it on their own.
These stories might interest an avid reader, or might be suitable short stories for students.
Harvey’s Dream | Stephen King
An aging man tells his wife about the vivid dream he had last night.
Symbols and Signs | Vladimir Nabokov
An elderly couple intends to visit their son in a mental institution, but because of a recent suicide attempt, they are not allowed to see him. The husband decides to remove the son from the facility.
Read “Symbols and Signs”
Flowers for Algernon | Daniel Keyes
A mentally retarded man undergoes a procedure to vastly increase his intelligence. He keeps a diary of his progress and personal interactions.
The Yellow Wallpaper | Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A woman is confined to the upstairs bedroom of a summer home by her doctor husband. She has “nervous depression” and a “hysterical tendency”. The confinement has an added negative effect on her mental health, which she documents in her journal.
Read “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Gimpel the Fool | Isaac Bashevis Singer
Gimpel, the narrator, is an adult orphan who gets turned over to the baker as an assistant. He admits that he’s “easy to take in”, and the villagers all play him for a fool. When he talks about leaving, the villagers try to convince him to marry Elka, a prostitute.
Alicia | Gabrielle Roy
A young girl tells the story of her older sister Alicia’s mental illness. They’re close but Alicia is very withdrawn.
The Fall of the House of Usher | Edgar Allan Poe
The narrator visits his friend Roderick who, along with his sister, is suffering from an unusual illness. Roderick’s sister dies, so the narrator helps him entomb her in the house before a permanent burial is arranged.
Average Waves in Unprotected Waters | Anne Tyler
Bet Blevins is bringing her nine-year-old, mentally handicapped son, Arnold, to an institution.
The Diary of a Madman | Nikolai Gogol
A middle-aged government clerk keeps a diary that includes the times he is marginalized by others, with his fanciful explanations for what’s really happening. His perceptions become increasingly outrageous as he loses grip on reality.
Read “The Diary of a Madman”
Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases | Lars Gustafsson
A mentally retarded boy is sent to an institution at age seven. He misses his old life on a farm, but tries to adjust to his new routine.
The Scarlet Ibis | James Hurst
The narrator, Brother, reminisces about the time a rare bird landed in his family’s garden, and about his brother, Doodle, who was physically disabled and mentally challenged.
Read “The Scarlet Ibis”
Silver Water | Amy Bloom
Violet tells the story of her sister Rose who suffers from schizophrenia and had her first psychotic break at fifteen. Rose is taken to many therapists with mixed results. When she goes to a Dr. Thorne, she begins to make some progress.
Read “Silver Water”
Night | Tatyana Tolstaya
Mamochka is eighty-years-old and looks after her middle-aged retarded son, Alexie. She gets him through his daily routine, sets up his work space, and tries to guide his interactions with others.
The Black Cat | Edgar Allan Poe
The narrator, a condemned man, relates how he came to blind and, later, kill a cat due to his loss of control from drinking. A second cat eventually comes into his home, causing a further escalation of hostilities.
Silent Snow, Secret Snow | Conrad Aiken
Paul, twelve-years-old, becomes distracted by something that happened a few days before. While home, he heard the postman’s footsteps but they were muffled; Paul thought they were muffled by snow. When he looked out the window, there was no snow. He can’t stop thinking about this “secret snow”, increasing his alienation from the world.
The Tell-Tale Heart | Edgar Allan Poe
An unnamed narrator describes how he killed a man; he tries to convince his listener of his sanity and wisdom. He believed his boarder, an old man, watched him with an “Evil Eye.”
Read “The Tell-Tale Heart”
The Key | Isaac Bashevis Singer
Bessie Popkin prepares to go out for some food shopping. She gets into her clothes, does her hair, and makes sure her neighbors don’t break in and steal her things. She has paranoid complaints about many people she has come in contact with.
The Lost Phoebe | Theodore Dreiser
Henry and Phoebe are an aging couple who live on a farm. They only have each other; when Phoebe dies, it has a bad effect on Henry’s mental state.
Read “The Lost Phoebe”
Jumper Down | Don Shea
Henry is a paramedic who is considered the “jumper up” expert—he’s great at talking people down when they’re on a bridge or ledge.
Read “Jumper Down”
Midair | Frank Conroy
Sean Kennedy is six-years-old when his absent father shows up to take him home from school. No one has a key so they climb in thru the fire escape. His father is manic. Eventually, some staff arrive from an asylum to get Mr. Kennedy. The narrative jumps ahead to future incidents in Sean’s life.
He | Katherine Anne Porter
The Whipples live in poverty and have three children, one of them mute and mentally challenged, the He of the title. Mrs. Whipple hates being pitied, and takes every opportunity to praise the boy. She is always worried about what everyone else will think of her.
Brothers | Sherwood Anderson
The narrator lives at his country house, twenty miles from Chicago. There is an old man in the area that the people call insane. When the old man hears a news story he always claims to be related to the person in question. The Chicago papers are reporting that a man murdered his wife for no apparent reason.
Of This Time, Of That Place | Lionel Trilling
Joseph Howe is an English instructor at Dwight College. One of his students, Ferdinand Tertan, is intelligent but mentally erratic. Howe, who is also a poet, is attacked in a literary journal as an irresponsible writer.
Child’s Play | Alice Munro
Marlene, the adult narrator, tells the story of her time at camp with her friend Charlene when they were about ten-years-old. While sharing information with each other, Marlene tells her about Verna, a girl two or three years older who moved in next to her. Verna was different; she was in a special class at school. Marlene didn’t like her. Some unstated tragedy had occurred in her childhood.
Read “Child’s Play”
The Man Who Did Not Smile | Yasunari Kawabata
The author of a screenplay has been watching the filming of his movie for a week. He is inspired to rewrite the last scene, having smiling masks appear all over the screen. The movie is set in a mental hospital, so he thinks he must add a happy ending.
Trying to Save Piggy Sneed | John Irving
The narrator became a writer because of his grandmother’s kindness and a retarded garbage collector from his neighborhood when he was young. The man was Piggy Sneed. He lived with his pigs and acted like them too. The children took pleasure in teasing and scaring him.
Read “Trying to Save Piggy Sneed”
Feather Your Nest | Anne O’Brien
Anne makes breakfast and talks to her husband, Declan, about the overgrown pine trees next door. Anne is recovering at home after a breakdown. A few people come to look at the property next door.
Read “Feather Your Nest” (Page 12)
Beyond the Bayou | Kate Chopin
An African-American woman, La Folle, was frightened “out of her senses” as a child. As a result, she won’t cross an imaginary line in her area; she has never been beyond the bayou.
Read “Beyond the Bayou”
Big Bertha Stories | Bobbie Ann Mason
Donald comes home, occasionally and unannounced, to see his family. He seemed to adjust after the Vietnam War, but then he lost his job and deteriorated. He tells his son, Rodney, tall tales of Big Bertha, a huge strip-mining machine. The stories start out light but always turn dark.
Colloquy | Shirley Jackson
Mrs. Arnold goes to a doctor and asks how to tell if someone is crazy. She then relates a story of her husband getting upset when he couldn’t get his daily paper.
Georgy Porgy | Roald Dahl
A celibate and repressed vicar rebuffs the advances of the many spinsters in his parish.
Read “Georgy Porgy” (PDF Pg 66)
The Good Doctor | Adam Haslett
A psychiatrist makes a long drive to see a patient who’s been getting her prescriptions renewed by phone. He wants to engage her in some talk therapy and better understand her situation.
The Sin Eater | Margaret Atwood
The narrator talks about her therapist, Joseph. He told her about a Wales tradition where a person known as a Sin Eater would be called to eat a meal over a dead body. This would transfer the dead person’s sins to the eater, thus clearing the person’s way to heaven. When Joseph has an accident, the narrator finds out about his life from his ex-wives and other patients.
Read “The Sin Eater”
Christmas Not Just Once a Year | Heinrich Boll
Shortly after WW I, a German family is showing “symptoms of disintegration”. In 1947, when the family’s Christmas tree was being taken down, it fell over, causing Aunt Milla to scream for almost a week. Uncle Franz offers a solution to the problem that causes issues of its own.
Eupompus Gave Splendour to Art by Numbers | Aldous Huxley
Emberlin is an academic, an encyclopedia of irrelevant information. While researching an obscure quotation, he becomes fixated on numbers and counting to the exclusion of everything else.
Read here (Pg 192)
The Second Tree from the Corner | E. B. White
Mr. Trexler regularly visits a psychiatrist because of dizziness, despondency, and tension among other things.
Pumpkins | Francine Prose
A truck full of pumpkins collides with a car, killing the female driver. The report has an effect on several people in the small town.
Read “Pumpkins” (scroll down a bit)
The Albatross | Susan Hill
Duncan is an eighteen-year-old with limited mental ability. He lives with his mother, Hilda. She controls his life, and thinks him incapable of doing anything without her guidance. She’s in a wheelchair and, thus, depends on him for help. Wanting some independence, Duncan is drawn to the sea. A fisherman, Ted, treats him well.
The Murderer | Ray Bradbury
Albert Brock is ushered into a psychiatrist’s office. He calls himself “The Murderer”. He’s been destroying machines lately, especially ones that keep him connected with others. He finds them intrusive and annoying.
Read “The Murderer”
New Year for Fong Wing | Monfoon Leong
Fong and Lee, restaurant workers, get paid. Lee wants to gamble, but Fong is worried about what his wife will think. Fong’s sons were killed in wars, and now he has no male heir. Feeling depressed, he agrees to go gamble with Lee.
The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether | Edgar Allan Poe
While in France the narrator visits an asylum. He had heard they used a “system of soothing” with the patients wherein punishments and confinement were avoided. To his surprise, his host informs him they have abandoned that system. The narrator is invited to stay for dinner.
Read “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”
Sleep | Larry Brown
Louis, an older man, is woken up by his wife, as he is every night. She can hear noises, and he has to check the house. His wife’s sleep has been disturbed for years. He stall as long as he can, but eventually gives in and gets up.
Miriam | Truman Capote
Mrs. Miller is an elderly widow living by herself in New York. She stays close to home and keeps a consistent routine. While standing in line for a movie one night, she meets a young girl, Miriam, which is also Mrs. Miller’s name. They have a conversation and part ways. A week later, Miriam shows up unannounced at Mrs. Miller’s home.
The Angel of the Bridge | John Cheever
The narrator, a businessman, finds out that his mother is afraid of flying. He also finds out his brother has developed a fear of tall buildings, especially the elevators. He doesn’t take an understanding view of his brother’s problem. On the way back from New Jersey, he experiences a strong reaction to the George Washington Bridge.
Read “The Angel of the Bridge”
Graveyard Shift (Day of Reckoning) | Richard Matheson
Luke sends his father a note saying the Widow Blackwell has been murdered. Her son, Little Jim, is scared and hiding. He tells his father to send the sheriff and coroner right away. In the next letter, Luke’s father, Sam, informs the Widow Blackwell’s brother of the tragedy.
Read “Graveyard Shift” (PDF Pg 103)
The Algorithms for Love | Ken Liu
Elena is on a weekend leave from the institution. She’s going with Brad to a bed-and-breakfast on the conditions that she take her medication every four hours and not be left alone. Elena designs dolls with A.I. that allows them to converse with their owners. The models have become increasingly complex, propelling her company to great success.
Read “The Algorithms for Love”
I will try to add more stories about depression, mental illness, insanity or other psychological problems that could be helpful for teaching reading and reading comprehension to middle or high school students. Eventually, I hope these pages will become a teaching resource.
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