Reading is an Excellent Mental Health Tool

“I was sort of embarrassed about it because I thought it was for kids,” 31-year-old Jason Moore admitted as he was walking to his therapist’s office with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone tucked under his arm. Jason had been struggling with anxiety, and after perusing meds and therapy, he turned to books. After shyly pulling the book from his side and sharing his eye-opening experience with his therapist, he was surprised to learn that his encounter was not in the least unusual, in fact, it’s a therapy practiced worldwide. 

Bibliotherapy, as NewsOk reports, is “the therapeutic use of books and poetry to help treat anything from the ups and downs of life to diagnosable conditions like depression.” Or in Jason’s case, Harry Potter for anxiety. The practice he unintentionally stumbled upon is a practice many of us probably engage in subconsciously ourselves. It is the reason we read, right? Whether we’re aware of it or not, books have a subtle effect on our psyches. They suck us in, warp our perceptions, and leave us somehow transformed. The best part of reading is this immersion. We endure with the plot – empathizing with the characters and rising or falling with their emotions – and at the end of it all, we pull ourselves from the page different from how we began.

“It’s a testament to the power of reading, which we all believe in here,” Sue Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for The Reading Agency, an organization providing bibliotherapy for teens, told NewsOk. “It’s helpful because no matter what you’re going through or where you are, you can go and get a book without having to make any statement about yourself.” And it’s so true. I’ve had endless encounters with people praising the books that warded off suicide, helped them cope with the death of a loved one, or even just rubbed away a bad day’s residue.  

Sue Wilkinson speaking on the behalf of Reading Well (image courtesy of Flickr)

Whether you’ve experienced a mental transformation first hand or listened to the stories of others, the salient feeling is one of awe for the way a book can weasel its way into a life, or just as powerfully, the way a life can weasel its way into a book.

Why not harness this power and use it to our benefit? This is the idea behind The Reading Agency who, partnered with Reading Well for Young People, is helping teens through major mental battles as well as the issues that aren’t cookie-cutter cases for the DSM – issues like bullying, disordered eating, and exam stress.

The organizational partnership has found that “90 percent of people who borrowed ‘prescribed’ books based on their conditions said they helped and 85 percent said the books helped their symptoms feel manageable.” Prescribing mostly means finding a book with relatable characters, thematic resonance, or shared dilemmas between character and patient.

Image courtesy of the Reading Agency

Unlike a prescription, the literary material that suits you evolves with your condition, requiring a heightened level of self-awareness and attention to personal mental needs. In this way, the practice centers more on growth and development than it does ‘treatment’ in the traditional sense of the word. According to Linda Barnes, president of the International Federation of Biblio and Poetry, “it’s not about looking for the one, right answer. It’s about inviting people to see their own lives in literature to heal.”

Bibliotherapy as a modern tool with medical credibility may be new, but the actual practice stretches as far back as literature itself. Reading was praised by Greek and Roman philosophers alike and seen as both beneficial and necessary to being a functional piece of political society. In mythology, the link between the literary world and medicinal world was maintained. Apollo was not just the smoking hot god of poetry; he was also the god of healing. Following WWI, Jane Austen novels were found to help with PTSD. For many therapists and psychiatrists, poems operate as a sort of Rorschach test, a gage for how to proceed with complimentary forms of therapeutic help.

The beauty of reading is that, unlike the temporal effects of pills or sessions which wear off with time, a book leaves you thinking about it long after you’ve put it down. You can be years removed from a read and still remember the sensations of a particular scene or the mental state you were in when you read it. Retracing your reading history is like flipping back through your own mental history. There’s always an uncanny resemblance between what you felt and what you read (or how you interpreted it) and it’s a powerful notion to think that this subtle link can cultivate mental flourishing and betterment.

It really begs you to ask the question: what should I read?

Article by Emily Roese

Featured image courtesy of Stylist.