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Bibliotherapy: read books you love for improved mental health!

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“But those who believe that flowers grow in vases don’t understand anything about literature. The library has now become her first-aid kit, and she’s going to give the children a little of the medicine that helped her recover her smile when she thought she’d lost it forever.”

Antonio Iturbe – La bibliotecaria de Auschwitz

From this quote by Antonio Iturbe, we can see the value of bibliotherapy, not only for adults but also in the classroom. Books are a powerful aid that teachers can use to help children who struggle with various problems. 

A boy and girl experiencing the magic of books.

It is a fact that children who love reading deal better with trauma highlighting another important reason to #raiseareader.

A bit of history

The word bibliotherapy is a combination of the Greek words for book and healing. It was first used in libraries, as we can see from the library motto – ‘house of healing for the soul’.

Ancient history

In history, it was used by the Ancient Greeks. And many viewed the literature of Aristotle as ‘medicine for the soul’. 

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Ancient hospitals kept libraries for staff and patients. In the early nineteenth century, doctors used books for guidance. For example, to help soldiers deal with post-war trauma during World War One. 

A therapeutic technique

Freud, Benjamin Rush, and Minson Galt played a significant role in recognising bibliotherapy as an intervention technique. In 1941 it appeared for the first time in the Illustrated Medical Dictionary as an official mental health treatment. 

In the 1950s, Caroline Shrodes published her book – The Conscious Reader. The book explores the impact characters in fiction novels can have on readers who identify with them. 

Near the end of the twentieth century, Rhea Rubin changed the course of bibliotherapy when she split it up into two fields
– Developmental bibliotherapy, used in the classroom, and
– Therapeutic bibliography used to treat mental health issues.

Bibliotherapy today

Today, we use bibliotherapy in many fields. For example, social work, healthcare, counselling, education, and parenting. We don’t restrict it to literature only. It includes poetry writing, movies, comic books, dance, self-help books, art, songs, journaling, and storytelling.

 Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin are two well-known bibliotherapists. They have set up the first official bibliotherapy service at The School of Life in Bloomsbury, London. 

Bibliotherapy in practice

As a reader, you use bibliotherapy every time you connect with a character, and through them, find a solution to problems you struggle with. Or when you use the characters’ experiences as a starting point to talk or write about the issues you and the character are facing.

Due to the lockdown restrictions from COVID-19 and current technologies, bibliotherapists now offer online services. For example, book recommendations or virtual bibliotherapy sessions.

What is bibliotherapy?

Noun: bib·​lio·​ther·​a·​py | \ ˌbi-blē-ə-ˈther-ə-pē

Listen to the pronunciation

Bibliotherapy is –

using reading materials for help in solving personal problems or for psychiatric therapy

also: the reading materials so used

 Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary

From my research, I discovered that bibliotherapy is a therapeutic process. It helps us improve our mental health and deal with symptoms related to our moods, like depression, grief, and anxiety.

It uses literature to bridge the gap between what happens in our minds and bodies, to improve our lives.

We can use it in two informal ways
1. Reading fiction and stories for support and guidance.
2. Reading non-fiction for information about topics like mental and health concerns and self-help and self-development.

When making use of fiction, bibliotherapy must be an interactive process. It is not only a matter of reading for enjoyment. But you, as the reader, should identify with a character and its thoughts and emotions. You will also create potential solutions to problems the character needs to solve. Reading how a character overcomes their challenges will inspire you to find a solution to your problems. And when good conquers evil in a novel, it will encourage you to keep on fighting this battle in your own life.

… bibliotherapy as a dynamic three-way interaction involving the use of a book, a counsellor, and a client.

 Sam Gladding, PhD

What are the benefits of bibliotherapy?

Using literature like fiction and non-fiction books has many benefits. It helps you gain a deeper understanding of your difficulties and develop plans to cope. You enjoy these benefits from both fiction and non-fiction books. It can also help you to develop skills like problem solving and self-awareness.

A bibliotherapist will assign a book for you to read between sessions and give you homework. Reading the book and thinking about how you relate to the story and its meaning improves the discussions during the therapy session.

Bibliotherapy can also be proactive when you read books to learn how to cope with likely future challenges. For example, when you plan to start a family, you can read books about pregnancy, caring for a baby, and raising your children. 

One of the most significant benefits of bibliotherapy is identifying with the character(s) feelings. And see how that character deals with issues you are facing. You feel less alone knowing that others are also struggling and trying to cope with various personal difficulties. 

“Reading for pleasure, with no motive to heal, can be deeply therapeutic for many.”

 Kate Jackson

What are examples of bibliotherapy?

Expressive writing

Reading and writing are two vital pillars of education systems and have a significant impact on your soul. Reading bibliotherapy is receptive and refer to reading, reception, and discussion of the text, as poetry, novels, and short stories.

Expressive writing is active and encourages self-expression and sharing of emotions. Using expressive writing help to identify and explain your feelings, reflect on what you have read and lead to new insights. It helps to release and get relief from strong or repressed emotions and helps with emotional control. 

Also Read:  Reading Fiction: Awesome Marketing Benefits Knowing Why People Love It

Creative bibliotherapy

This form of bibliotherapy uses stories, poems, and fiction. It is often used in groups, and members read books and discuss them in the group. According to research, your brain will react as if experiencing an event when you read it in a book. When we put ourselves in a characters’ shoes, we learn to understand our feelings and develop empathy with the characters and other people. 

According to research, your brain will react as if experiencing an event when you read it in a book. Click To Tweet

We all connect to characters and stories in the way we relate. Bibliotherapy as a tool put you in touch with books that can help you or start a conversation. Either with your bibliotherapist or with friends and family to help them understand your feelings.

If you would like to explore creative bibliotherapy with your child, have a look at my review of Lizzie’s Dream Journal In this book, we see how Lizzie uses a journal to deal with the loss of her father, bullying at school and learning about friendship.

Developmental bibliotherapy

We use developmental bibliotherapy in educational settings. But parents can also use it to explain issues children face. Like bullying, moving home, loss, being kind to others who are different, etc.

Turtle Crossing is a cute story about a turtle who doesn't want to move with his parents. And Bald is Beautiful: A letter to a fabulous girl sends an encouraging message to girls who are different.

Through bibliotherapy, children learn essential lessons and values, for example:

  • Making mistakes is a chance to learn, and
  • Courage means to do something, even if you’re scared.
Definition of developmental bibliography.

Through stories, children can reflect on their lives, accept the past, and help them be more optimistic about the future. Stories are a source of comfort, help them connect with others, and they feel less alone. 

But most important is the way stories give children confidence and a way to use language to ask for help when they struggle to cope by themselves. Stories help them learn about themselves and find their place in the world from within a safe place.  

Prescriptive bibliotherapy

A bibliotherapist will recommend certain books for you to read to help you change your way of thinking, feelings, and actions. It can be self-help books on the specific issue you face or fiction to identify with characters in the same situations as you.

Also called personalised reading, the bibliotherapist recommend books to you based on what you love to read or books about problems you need help with. They can match it to the way you read – do you prefer physical books, audiobooks or ebooks, or do you read during the day or at night?

Book prescriptions use different books: fiction, non-fiction, classics, bestseller, little-known books, etc. It can also focus on specific topics, like fatherhood, pregnancy, anxiety, depression, etc. It even offers travel prescriptions – books to read on your next holiday. To learn more, check out Personalised Book Prescriptions by Book Therapy.

Bibliotherapy Personalised Book Prescriptions
Click the image to get your personalised book subscription now!

Therapeutic bibliotherapy

Therapeutic bibliotherapy is often combined with other therapeutic techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat psychological issues, like eating disorders, trauma, PTSD, etc. 

You will read books to explore and help you understand your feelings or books that help you deal with a problematic situation you are facing. It will give you a new perspective on the situation and help you cope or solve your problems. 

Bijal Shah offers online Bibliotherapy Sessions. The Guardian, Marie Claire, NBC News, and others have featured her book recommendations. 

Add the book therapy session to your cart and complete the payment. Bijal will email you the booking options (physical or virtual via Skype or Zoom). And she will send you questions to prepare for the session. She offers unlimited support for two weeks after the session. 

When do you use bibliotherapy?

Emotions and Social Skills

Bibliotherapy can help you deal with difficult emotions and concerns, for example, depression, anxiety, loss, grief, anger, etc. It can help you find solutions to social issues, like shyness, or change your mindset about racism, sexism, etc.

Reading helps you to better understand the beliefs, desires, and thoughts of other people, even when it is much different to your own. And through identifying with characters, readers develop higher levels of empathy with others. 

Couples can use book swapping to get to know each other better, create a shared paradigm, and develop new qualities. It can create opportunities for discussions, help overcome a crisis in a relationship, and have a therapeutic effect.

But it should be voluntary, mutual, and books should fit your partners’ preferred genre(s). If your partner rejects a book, accept it, and offer him another book. You should consider the possible value or benefit your partner may get from the book, like helping him get past grief. 

Book swapping for couples – You should consider the possible value or benefit your partner may get from the book, like helping him get past grief.  Click To Tweet

Trauma and PTSD

Don Meichenbaum, a leading expert on trauma and violence, states: 

“More important than therapy, more important than social programs, more important than anything else. The research shows that the single most powerful predictor of their ability to overcome the trauma and survive their circumstances is the ability to read. If they can read, they have a chance to find success in school and overcome all those terrible things in their lives. If they can’t, the school will only be another source of pain and failure added to all the other sources of pain and failure. If they can read, they can benefit from therapy and everything else we may try to do for them. If they can’t read, all of that is a waste of time.”

Trauma and Reading – Teacher Profesional Learning

Even though he refers to children in this quote, it is true even for adults. Our ability to read might very well be the single most significant factor to overcome trauma or PTSD.

Also Read:  Post Recommendation: Online Threats to Babies

Eating disorders

According to Beat -a UK leading eating disorders charity – there is not much research on the therapeutic use of reading to treat eating disorders. Most of the work relates to self-help bibliotherapy – reading self-help books about eating disorders yourself. 

An online survey shows that people who read often feel that what they read have a significant impact on their mental health.

An online survey shows that people who read often feel that what they read have a significant impact on their mental health. Click To Tweet

Many of these people read books relating to eating disorders. It includes books recommended by others struggling with this issue and recommending books to others. Reading helps them get a new or different perspective about their eating disorder. And gives them helpful, factual information, motivation, and inspiration from role models. 

Reading fiction helps you create a kinship with a character. In this way, it distracts you from your fears, loneliness, and discomfort when forming healthier eating habits. It is interesting to note that when reading about eating disorders, the reader experience was negative about mood, self-esteem and body awareness, diet, and exercise habits. 

They found the real value in reading other types of fiction, which had a more positive effect on mood. But some people feel guilty when they sit and read (inactive) instead of exercising. 

So although bibliotherapy can be beneficial for eating disorders, you should use it as a part of your complete treatment regimen. 

Mental health 

During a session, the bibliotherapist explores your reading habits, as well as your worries, dreams, and passions. You then receive a list of prescribed books to read. Reading is a way of escaping reality and a suspension of self. It is a type of mindfulness and anchors you in the story. 

Reading for 30 minutes a day helps to improve your self-esteem, empathy, and emotional IQ. Reading helps us feel connected to the shared human experience, a critical part of our mental well-being. We experience it every time we read a poem or a book. 

Reading for 30 minutes a day helps to improve your self-esteem, empathy, and emotional IQ. Click To Tweet

Read books you love and make notes in a journal of your favourite lines and quotes. It can become a quick reference guide for those days you need inspiration and uplifting. 

Bibliotherapy techniques and activities

Techniques

  • Learn a few lines or a short poem that brings you strength and calm when you need it.
  • Re-read one of your favourite books to bring back the positive feelings you’ve felt reading it the first time.
  • Give a book you’ve enjoyed to a friend and use it as a conversation starter to talk about your own story and experiences and how you relate to it. 
  • Choose and read a book specifically to improve your mood. 
  • Gloomy books are also helpful if you connect to the characters or events and how they overcome their difficulties. It will inspire you to find solutions to yours.
  • Find and read novels about problems you face, like books about illness, divorce, loss, etc.
  • Read an inspirational book, as it can help you match your behaviour to that of the characters. It helps you make better decisions and leads to real change in your life. 

Activities

Here are some fun activities you can do with your child at home:

  • Ask open-ended questions to start a conversation about a book and to encourage reflection.
  • Use If questions as a powerful way to trigger your child’s imagination.
  • Ask your child to share his favourite quotes and explain what it means to her. Then let her write it in her journal. It is a helpful way to find inspiration and encouragement by skimming some quotes from her journal. 
  • Print the Can It Be For Me questions and give them to your older children as bookmarks. To encourage independence, let them answer these questions by themselves in their journal.

How effective is bibliotherapy?

Research has found that bibliotherapy is effective in the treatment of various issues. 

Depression

Bibliotherapy provides effective long-term treatment for adults with mild depression, reducing symptoms from three months to three years. 

Eating disorders

According to an online survey, people thought that self-help bibliotherapy is more effective in treating eating disorders than reading fiction books about it. Here, fiction harmed their mood, self-esteem, body image, diet and exercise habits. 

Children

Creative bibliotherapy can help children in three ways
1. Internal behaviours like anxiety and depression.
2. External behaviours like aggression and social anxiety.
3. Pro-social behaviour, referring to their intentions and attitudes towards others.  

Students

Research shows mindfulness related bibliotherapy to lower stress resulted in a significant drop in anxiety and stress, perception of stress, anxiety sensitivity, and life quality. 

Bibliotherapy is a viable treatment option for people of all ages, but do not recommend it if a person
– can’t discern between fantasy and reality.
– has limited cognitive ability or is readily distracted
– don’t enjoy reading

Do you want to learn more about bibliotherapy?

If this article has piqued your interest, and you would like to learn more, consider buying this course and receive a Certificate of Achievement upon completion.

The course cover bibliotherapy history, its mediums and how you can use it for healing. It also offers reader case studies and information should you want to train as a bibliotherapist. It has the extra value of over 200 reading recommendations and resources across a range of genres. 

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.” -W. Somerset Maugham, Books and You

― Goodreads

Books are magical, and any avid reader will testify to their many benefits. So, even if you have never heard about bibliotherapy before, you have used books to cope, or learn, or deal with difficult situations. When life is hard, remember that a bibliotherapist can help. With their book recommendations or counselling sessions, you will receive the help you need, doing something you love so much – to simply read!

Article References

Hi! I am Susan

Welcome to my adventure

Why Read or Rot?

I have started reading at the age of four. I can remember how I often read under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to sleep.

During my early school years, we visited the library once a week. I couldn’t pick out my new book fast enough! By the end of the period, I would have finished it already, leaving me with nothing to read for the rest of the week!

Growing up, Fridays was the highlight of my week. Dad would pack the whole family into the car, and off we go! You guessed right – to the library! We were a family of readers.

In my adult years, I’ve developed a variety of interests like technology, photography, gardening and even writing. But reading was and will always be a part of my life!

Reading for me is like breathing. If I cannot read, my soul will quietly rot away

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