Bibliotherapy: is Literature the Cure?

‘One sheds one’s sickness in books’ – D.H. Lawrence

Bibliotherapy is the use of literature to help an individual achieve health and well-being. A book may offer someone a step-by-step guide to dealing with a mental or emotional issue, an individual might be able to identify with a protagonist, or perhaps a particular story can offer a new direction or meaning to a reader and their lives.

Different agencies across the country are beginning to develop new ways for building upon these ideas of reading as a form of therapy.

‘The Reading Agency’ is a national organisation that runs in connection with local library services in order to promote reading as a form of enhancing confidence, combating mental health difficulties and encouraging community development.

Debbie Hicks, a founding member of ‘The Reading Agency’, explained to IMPACT that the concept of bibliotherapy works from both a top down and bottom up approach: “Bibliotherapy can mean both reading recommended from health professionals, which we call ‘books on prescription’, as well as reading recommended by a huge range of readers- perhaps who themselves have suffered from mental or other illnesses”.

Although reading is often an individual activity, Hicks noted that there has been an increasing emphasis on social groups in bibliotherapy. In a survey conducted by ‘The Reading Agency’ in 2008, there were 10,000 library based reading groups across the UK. This figure is close to double the number of groups measured in 2004. Hicks explains this huge increase in social reading as a result of “reading being acknowledged as a means to combat isolation”.

Promoting reading as a form of enhancing confidence, combating mental health difficulties and encouraging community development.

She also puts the recent resurgence of interest in bibliotherapy down to “the restructuring of health services along the lines of early intervention”, particularly in reference to mental health.

Students have to deal with a huge range of different experiences and emotions in a very short space of time. So can literature help make the university experience a lot less daunting? Can bibliotherapy become the cheaper, more hands-on alternative to ‘conventional’ counselling?

Universities are already piloting reading group schemes, with the University of Leeds library already promoting literature on books on prescription, and encouraging reading groups.

A book may offer someone a step-by-step guide to dealing with a mental or emotional issue.

Kevin Harvey is a lecturer in Sociolinguistics at the University of Nottingham and helps run a reading group, which incorporates the methods of bibliotherapy.

He told IMPACT that attitudes to bibliotherapy have not always been optimistic: “There is a degree of scepticism because its no hard science. Often you rely on people’s experiences and their stories about how it’s helped them but it’s difficult to pin-point exactly what it is about it”.

However he also commented: “I don’t think that’s a problem because it seems to work and that’s the main thing. I think reading in itself is inherently therapeutic”.

This idea is the basis for groups such as the Reading Agency. Debbie Hicks told IMPACT that not only do non-fiction books about mental health issues help clarify issues for individuals, but also that “there is a value in creative reading; novels and poetry provide ways of promoting well-being that let you escape your own worries and learn about your own experiences”.

Kevin Harvey agrees: “That it is something that people, students included, may not be aware of. But I think books have more to offer besides the gaining of intellectual wisdom and artistic value. There’s something magical about how literature can be a platform or spur for people to talk about personal things, which they would otherwise have difficulty expressing. Our brains are wired for narrative. We try and make sense of the out of the chaos of the world through stories and I think that’s why the therapy works”.

So- a prescription of Jane Austen? A dose of Marian Keyes? Is Ian McEwan your remedy? Join the discussion on the IMPACT website.

Bea Beard and Emily Tripp

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One Comment
  • Snandy
    29 December 2013 at 21:47
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    There is an excellent book out called ‘The Novel Cure’ by Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud that wittily prescribes a bibliographic remedy for a range of life circumstances which I highly recommend!
    (but please don’t buy it from Amazon because they are extremely exploitative and don’t pay enough tax…)

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