Bibliotherapy – just what the doctor ordered?

Why does reading make you feel good?

Is it the enjoyment of escapism? Is it because immersing ourselves in someone else’s words can bring a deep but intangible connection to another person, or to whole other worlds? Or maybe, it could be that reading good writing – whether it’s fantastical fiction or a high-quality piece of non-fiction – helps us better understand ourselves. It shows us, either explicitly or implicitly, something we hadn’t fully acknowledged about what it’s like to be ‘a person like me’, and that there are other ‘people like me’ who get it.

For me, it’s a mix of all three. And I think each is vital for keeping well.

Books are lifelines which help me to understand where I sit in the noisy, infinite spider’s web of stories that is the world around me. They’re also a route out of reality when I need it.

This therapeutic quality of books hasn’t gone unnoticed to policy people in the UK. In Wales, there has been a ‘Books on Prescription’ scheme since 2003. The aim of this is to make a form of psychotherapy available to people with mild to moderate mental health problems. No drugs. No side-effects. Just an invitation (and the means, via a free book) to find out more about what your mind and body is going through, and to work through ways of dealing with it at your own pace.

Snaps from the launch of Reading Well for Long Term Conditions in London

This idea is now changing shape and pulling in some pretty novel partnerships. For example, Arts Council England is funding the Reading Agency and the Society of Chief Librarians to work together with charities, local government and health partners to ensure people with conditions like diabetes, or symptoms such as chronic pain, will be able to access the right high-quality books from local libraries.

These are books that have been hand-picked by people who have had similar experiences, providing a line of connection to other people who get what it’s like. They’re a way to know a bit more about yourself, about what’s happening to you, away from the judgement of a clinic. Just as importantly, they’re a source of information that’s backed up by evidence – a much-needed antidote to so many nightmare-inducing online forums.

There are obviously issues here about whether we should be nervous that books are being used as a cheap alternative to providing formal caring services. Obviously, this isn’t acceptable, and any prescription of bibliotherapy should be accompanied by appropriate follow up and other kinds of treatment where needed.

It’s also impossible to ignore that the one in six (!) adults who struggle with their literacy might not reap the benefits from these sorts of schemes. Yet there’s also a lot to be excited about. Not least, the clear acknowledgement by the medical world that it’s not enough to send people away with pills and assume they’ll be OK. Because, often, they sure won’t feel OK. Bibliotherapy provides a door to opening up new conversations. To routinely treating patients like people. Maybe even ‘people like me’.

The power of the written word can encourage someone towards feeling healthier and happier. Let’s celebrate this and make sure it benefits as many people as possible, particularly those who might need it most.

Do similar schemes exist in other countries?

What’s the one book you would like to see on prescription?


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