A book for everything that ails us … why bibliotherapy could be just the medicine we’re looking for

platform reading

Image: Moriza (CC BY 2.0)

By Morwen Johnson

Many of us will have received books as Christmas presents last month – and the bestseller lists testify to their continuing popularity despite regular doom-mongering. The benefits of books go much further though than keeping your brain active and passing the time. Reading involves ‘emotional thinking’ and in the words of The Reader, books “are full of the stuff that makes us human”. That means that they can actually be a powerful resource for improving mental health.

“I felt better than before … I felt understood”

Last year we wrote on our blog about social prescribing – and how the NHS is recognising that non-medical treatments such as arts activities or exercise can improve patient’s mental and physical health. This is partly linked to the emphasis on enabling self-management support to be given to people with long-term or chronic health conditions. The use of bibliotherapy and self-help reading is a valuable aspect of social prescribing.

The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription scheme has been running nationally in England since 2013 and was expanded last year to include a reading list to support people with dementia and their carers. In its first year, an evaluation showed that it had reached 275,000 people with book-based cognitive behavioural therapy. The scheme is evidence-based and works within NICE guidelines. Books can be recommended by GPs or other health professionals but are also available on self-referral for anyone to borrow. Similar schemes can be accessed in other parts of the UK.

The healing power of imagination and creativity

It’s not just self-help books which can help improve health however – reading fiction and poetry can also help. Blake Morrison, writing back in 2008 on fledgling bibliotherapy initiatives, quoted Hector, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, as saying how, in the presence of great literature, “it’s as if a hand has reached out and taken our own”. We can recognise aspects of our own lives in the characters and imaginary worlds of books and in many cases, narratives of change, of transformation, of recovery, can provide comfort or hope. In other situations, books can literally put into words, difficult experiences which people struggle to admit or talk about.

This is true not just in literary works –acclaimed graphic novels and memoirs have shone a light on topics such as the experience of psychosis (Look Straight Ahead), cancer (When David Lost His Voice; and Probably Nothing); eating disorders (Lighter Than My Shadow); OCD (The Bad Doctor); childhood anxiety (Everything is Teeth) and grief (The End).

And children’s publishing is also a medium for helping children process difficult emotions or experiences –for example Duck, Death and the Tulip is visually beautiful and heartfelt. For anyone interested in how books can help children’s mental health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has a useful online resource list of books for children.

Taking the idea of the healing power of reading and providing a creative spin, the Emergency Poet offers prescription poems and poetic pills. Deborah Alma was inspired by her experience using poetry to support dementia patients, to think about how poems could be used as a therapeutic way to encourage people to discuss stress. She now travels in a converted ambulance to festivals, schools and libraries, providing literacy solace on the move.

And the social enterprise The Reader has many years’ experience of how shared reading groups and reading aloud projects can be used to increase health and wellbeing.

Libraries are the best pill

As public libraries come under increased pressure from councils trying to make budget savings, it’s worth remembering during the economic arguments that free access to books does not just help improve literacy. Research for the Arts Council last year found that libraries make a positive contribution to people’s health and wellbeing. In fact they estimated that these improvements to health save the NHS around £27.5million a year. The Carnegie Trust and CILIP also advocate strongly for the wider benefits of public library services in the 21st century.

Public libraries are safe spaces which people who are isolated, lonely or ill can come to for support and to make connections. As mentioned, many libraries are involved in Books on Prescription schemes (in England it is part of the Universal Health Offer), run social reading groups, and benefit both individuals and community wellbeing. Librarians have expanded their professional skills to work on these multi-agency projects and tailor them for their own local communities’ needs. For example, Kirklees Libraries and Information Centres was a finalist in the 2013 CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award for its Reading and You scheme which uses bibliotherapy in libraries, hospitals and community organisations’ premises. And yet libraries continue to be seen as an easy target for cost-cutting.

A lifeline and a consolation

Reading is not just a leisure activity. Libraries are not just buildings which have been superseded by the internet. For many people, the information and stories found in books – whether bought, borrowed from libraries, or shared between friends – can provide a lifeline.

In the words of Daisy Goodwin, introducing her book 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life, “there may not be a cure, but there is always a consolation”.


The Knowledge Exchange are a team of researchers and librarians based in Glasgow, who comment on and curate information on social policy.

You can read more about us in this blog article and on our website.

And of course, you can follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. There may also be a few book-related quotes occasionally!

4 thoughts on “A book for everything that ails us … why bibliotherapy could be just the medicine we’re looking for

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