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Therapy

Prescribing Poetry and Prose

How clinical bibliotherapy harnesses the power of literature for mental health.

Key points

  • Clinical bibliotherapy utilizes literature for emotional healing and mental health support.
  • Books on prescription and shared reading are two structured approaches to clinical bibliotherapy.
Jaredd Craig / Unsplash
Jaredd Craig / Unsplash

There are two different types of bibliotherapy. This article discusses clinical bibliotherapy. For developmental bibliotherapy (using stories to support children’s common social and emotional needs such as conflict with friends, bullying, and other difficulties), see “How Fiction Affects Children's Social-Emotional Learning” and “Practical Ways to Build Children’s Social-Emotional Learning.”

What is clinical bibliotherapy?

Clinical bibliotherapy is a therapeutic approach that utilizes books and literature to support individuals in managing their emotional, psychological, or mental health challenges. It can address a wide range of issues, including depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, and addiction. Its goal is to harness the therapeutic potential of words on paper to facilitate emotional healing and personal transformation. Two approaches stand out: the "books on prescription" model and the "shared reading" model.

What is books on prescription, and what is shared reading?

Under the books on prescription model, individuals—on their own or guided by a trained counselor—read specifically selected books. These selected readings are either self-help books or specific books targeted as relevant to the particular reader(s). Reading Well, out of UK-based The Reading Agency, is one such program that provides extensive reading lists, curated by health professionals and individuals experiencing a given condition. The Reading and Writing for Well-Being program out of Liverpool John Moores University is another such example that offers a list of therapeutic books as well as organized sessions. The primary purpose of the books on prescription model is to provide individuals with a structured and accessible way to access self-help and therapeutic resources for managing mental health and well-being challenges. By offering a curated selection of recommended books, this model aims to empower individuals, supplement traditional treatment, reduce stigma, and promote reading as therapy.

The shared reading model differs in that a small group (2-12 people) meets with a trained group leader to read aloud, in real time, a wide range of pieces of literature: poems, short stories, novels. People, in addition to the leader, can volunteer to read, and the reading naturally pauses when individuals share their reactions or thoughts with the group. The Reader, a UK-based national charity organization, uses the shared reading model to foster a sense of community and well-being while promoting personal growth and emotional healing through the shared experience of reading literature. The key objectives of this model include promoting connection, enhancing mental and emotional well-being, and building resilience. Since it does not require individual reading or even literacy, the model aims to make literature and its benefits more accessible, regardless of background or circumstances.

Lucrezia Carnelos / Unsplash
Source: Lucrezia Carnelos / Unsplash

Why use literature in general?

The Reader's shared reading model involves deliberately selecting a wide range of literature for its therapeutic process because the organization suggests that literature—even more so than self-help books—provides a more human and emotionally resonant avenue for individuals to explore their inner worlds and connect with others in a safe and inclusive setting. As one participant in The Reader’s shared reading group articulated, novels allow readers to both escape into the lives of characters and, paradoxically, see reflections of themselves within those characters, creating a unique space for self-discovery and empathy. This emotional connection established between literature, individuals, and the group creates a private and often repressed emotional space. In the context of mental health issues like addiction, the shared reading approach aims to transcend the repetitive vocabulary of therapy and recovery, encouraging a more spontaneous and emotionally rich discourse that taps into the broader human experience, ultimately fostering deeper personal connections and growth.

The books on prescription and shared reading models suggest the transformative dimension of literature, whether self-help or fiction, that transcends and supplements traditional therapy. In a climate where mental health challenges are prevalent and diverse, clinical bibliotherapy emerges as another means of offering individuals a structured yet deeply personal path to navigate the complexities of their emotional and psychological landscapes.

References

Davis, Phillip, et al. "What Literature Can Do." Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society, University of Liverpool, www.liverpool.ac.uk/media/livacuk/iphs/researchgroups/CRILSWhatLiteratu…. Accessed 22 Sept. 2023.

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