“Living your life is a long and dodgy business…and stories and books help. Some help you with the living itself. Some help you just take a break. The best do both at the same time.” – Anne Fine, author of “Goggle Eyes.”
Books are arguably the greatest gift that Mankind has even given to….well… Mankind. Long and short, fiction and non-fiction, e-book and paperback; books have given us access into some the greatest minds ever – dead and alive, human and divine.
Should it be surprising, then, that doctors are prescribing these wonderful creations to our fellow human beings who suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental and emotional problems?
Bibliotherapy Treats Depression
Granted, when we think of “treatment” for mental illness, our minds may picture someone on a therapist’s couch; or some expensive, over-the-top advertisement for the latest prescription drug. Maybe you see a picturesque treatment center surrounded by a lush garden and flowing water…
However, Bibliotherapy – the use of designated reading materials designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance – has been around longer than any of the aforementioned treatments.
The ancient Greeks used to post a sign above their library halls with the words “healing place for the soul.”
Heck… what would Socrates and Aristotle know, anyways? Oh… yeah…the whole “laying the foundations of Western thought” thing…
But it’s not just the some of the greatest minds of the ancient world. Fast forward to 2014, and you’ll find some of the world’s best academic institutions and mental health professionals singing Bibliotherapy praises.
In the United States, “reading therapy” began in many hospitals as a supplement to other types of treatments. Medical professionals determined that books with heavy emotional and intellectual emphasis had the ability to uplift and strengthen a patient – both mentally and physically. The stronger of tie of the book to the patient’s circumstances, the more it seemed to help.
How Bibliotherapy is thought to work
Have you ever gotten “lost” in a good book? The same kind of feelings and interactivity between the reader and the book are what bibliotherapy is all about.
There are two elements of therapy at play in bibliotherapy – expressive and psychological. The expressive element of the therapy focuses on the consolatory and healing nature of a book; while the psychological element focuses on exactly that – the mental, emotional and internal relationship between the reader and the book.
In theory, bibliotherapy is more dependent upon the emotional interaction of the “book-reader” relationship than the actual intellectual understanding of the literature. A literary work’s worth is determined entirely by its ability to provoke a therapeutic reaction from the person.
In other words, the book needs to create some relief of certain emotional or mental pressures.
One of the main concepts of bibliotherapy is called universalization – the realization that you are not alone in your thoughts or struggles. While going through any problem, a common feeling is that of isolation and hopelessness. In bibliotherapy, it’s crucial for an individual to realize two things: that they are not alone and that others have experienced the same problems and overcame them.
Who Bibliotherapy can help
The therapy is used to help people of all ages and with a wide range of emotional, mental, physical and social issues. Some of the problematic experiences that people have countered with Bibliotherapy include:
-Depression and anxiety
-Sexual, physical and emotional abuse
-Loneliness and isolation
Types of Bibliotherapy
For advocates and therapists, there is one core belief: bibliotherapy requires some form of reading. This common thread aside, there are different beliefs and schools of thought on the type of book, the amount of therapy required, and therapist involvement.
On one side, self-help books require almost no therapist involvement – the book itself is the catalyst of treatment. On the other end of the continuum, bibliotherapy is used as a therapeutic aid – with the involvement of a therapist being crucial.
Usually, the type of therapy used depends upon the theoretical leanings of the therapist. In fact, there are two primary “schools” of thought for bibliotherapy: “cognitive” and “affective.”
[box type=”info” align=”aligncenter” ]Cognitive (thinking) therapists involve either no therapist or minimal therapist involvement. As the learning functions of a person are believed to be the main factor in treatment, non-fiction books are used. All kinds of programs can be used – including computer programs with actionable learning outcomes – with the improvement of the reader’s problem-solving ability and mental functioning being the ultimate goal.[/box]
[box type=”info” align=”aligncenter” ]Affective (behavioral) therapists believe in the power of fiction to help people. Significant emphasis is placed on the evocation of emotional responses through character interaction. Affective therapists believe that as a character works out a problem, the reader becomes emotionally involved; thus identifies with the struggles of the character and the resolution of the problem.[/box]
Where reading therapy has shown a tremendous amount of promise is with children. When experiencing difficulty and hurt, children are the most vulnerable. Tragically, these kids often have nowhere to turn and no one to help see them through.
On the positive side children are also very open to love, support, and guidance. Perhaps, just as important, children are also creative and open minded. Characters in literature often pop off the page for them, and they are very receptive to the message. This can help them tremendously in identifying with the character and the resolution of the problem.
Conclusion on Bibliotherapy
Books can touch our soul, strengthen our mind, and broaden our perspective. We identify with the words, the characters, and the human experience within the pages.
Anyone that has read a truly great book can speak to the fact that they can change your life.
For our fellow human beings experiencing any kind of difficulty, reading a good book may just bring some answers to very difficult questions, while changing their hearts, and healing their minds.
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If you are interested in learning more about this, organizations dedicated to the practice of reading therapy include the American Art Therapy Associates and the National Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy.