Books as therapy

For avid readers, the idea of bibliotherapy is not new at all. Many people feel better after curling up with a good book. There’s a feeling that they are good for the heart and soul, and it’s not unusual to find a feeling of friendship within the page, looking to them for guidance and perspective, asking questions such as ‘What Would Jane Do?’

Using words to soothe the emotions and alter thoughts is the root of bibliography – the use of literature to help people deal with psychological, social and emotional problems. The concept dates back to 300 BC when ancient civilizations placed inscriptions over library entrances that stated that within the building was healing for the soul. Aristotle considered literature to have healing benefits and reading fiction to be a way of treating illness and in Titus Andronicus William Shakespeare encourages the audience to ‘Come, and take choice of all my library, And so beguile thy sorrow … ’

Although stemming from ancient cultures, one of the first times it was applied to medical care in the UK was after World War I to help treat the emotional trauma suffered by returning soldiers, when engagement and occupation with books in psychiatric institutions was seen to be beneficial for the patients’ general sense of wellbeing. More recently it has been recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) UK as a useful start in treating mild and moderate depression, anxiety and panic and some other mental health problems. In Ireland GPs suggest specific titles through the Power of Words scheme and on the other side of the world, Central West Libraries in New South Wales has developed a Books on Prescription scheme.

Different forms of bibliotherapy exist. Some is very much within the self-help genre, whereas other therapists ‘prescribe’ personal reading lists based on the type of literature a person favours, whereas others still offer guided group reading sessions, known as creative bibliotherapy. This is what Sharon Dunscombe, who runs Tales for Tea offers, via the practice of sharing great works of literature by reading them aloud, together. She describes this as a ‘deeply personal and social experience’ where the text and pleasure of reading is enough in itself, but can be enhanced by the experience of engaging with it in a group. Sharon believes that ‘It is my duty as a bibliotherapist to make connections; personal connections between the content of the books and the people I read to, thus promoting a therapeutic response.’

It was after running reading groups in a junior school whilst studying for her Level 3 NVQ that Sharon came to bibliotherapy. She discovered that the children responded very well to the stories being read to them by unconsciously relating their lives to the works she was reading. She describes herself as ‘a complete bibliophile and [I] have eaten books and words like bowls of warm nourishment from a very early age!’ Reading is not just something that children benefit from, and groups are starting up all over the country for people from all walks of life.

Rachel, author of Black Rainbow, a writer and bibliotherapist, who, amongst other workshops, works with prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs, knows first hand the value of using poetry and prose as an aid to psychological healing and wellbeing. When faced with depression, suicidal thoughts and hospitalisation, ‘an illness that left me inconsolable and tormented by pain and fear’ her mother began to read to her. The poems and passages she read became props for Rachel. ‘I clung to particular lines and phrases as if they were carefully constructed life rafts: a particular favourite was an excerpt from Corinthians: “My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness” which I repeated to myself in the style of a mantra or prayer. As I began to recover, I grew to rely more and more on the healing power of consoling poetry and prose. As I gradually re-learnt how to focus my attention and read for myself, I sought out texts with a compassionate voice that helped me feel less alone; as well as pieces of writing that transformed my perspective.’

Experiments by Professor Philip Davis from the School of English at the University of Liverpool suggests that complex prose and poetry increases electrical activity in the brain. Rachel believes that ‘We can draw a relationship between reading poems and increased focus plus the ability to engage in something outside of oneself, thereby separating oneself from the ‘ego’: an important component of mental health. ‘ Reading is a personal endeavour using internal processes but featuring external voices, and therefore useful in focusing the reader on examining their ‘self’ and coming to terms with their emotions and challenging accepted but unhelpful thoughts, via prompts from others in a safe and contained environment.

Samuel Crothers, the man who coined the term bibliotherapy described its stages as Identification, Catharsis and Insight.  Essentially, the reader identifies with some aspect of the story, finds release in sharing with the character’s feelings, and gains insight into how to apply that to dealing with their own emotions.

There can be no doubt that literature transforms us and the process of reading is a very healing process, but the way in which it does so can vary significantly. Words can help people realise emotions, and the result can be that emotions deep inside are then able to be expressed and shared. Books can help to provide different perspectives and the suggestion of an alternative course of action. They may be inspiring, through the story or character. For some it is the actual doing, the practice of devoting half an hour a day to a regular activity, which can help provide a sense of solidity for some people, as a safe place unchanging and apart from difficulties faced in the world and a place of escapism. Others may simply respond to the rhythm of the words and the flow of sentences, finding themselves absorbed and in an almost meditative state.

The exact benefits may not be rigidly defined, and we may never be able to conduct laboratory experiments or collect reams of data to prove the case for bibliotherapy being of medical assistance, but it certainly is another tool in the world and an asset to support mental health. As Rachel writes in Black Rainbow – ‘Words were what I knew, what I had always relied on.’

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