Reading For Wellbeing

Can reading be used as therapy? Ellen Orange explores the potential and the pitfalls of 'Books on Prescription'

Reading For Wellbeing

Every so often an article comes out telling us how good reading is for our mental health. Bustle shows how it can reduce stress levels by 68% and help you sleep better, while The New Yorker explores 'bibliotherapy'. More recently, the concept has been taken a step further and the organisation Reading Well has developed 'Books on Prescription' - using reading as therapy.

Books from the scheme can be recommended by GPs, counsellors, and school nurses and are available in local libraries. The books are typically self-help guides, however, for young people, the range includes a handful of fiction books too, with big titles like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

This seems like a great idea – reading is good for us so why not channel this in useful ways? Unfortunately, it isn't that simple – literature, like all art, is incredibly subjective. In an interview with Professor Jonathan Bate on the concept of reading as therapy Stephen Fry, who has bi-polar disorder, had interesting take on the issue:

"I wish I could say that I have a list of poems or poets who are good for depression, or good for mania…. I don't think it quite works like that. I think one can be tremendously solaced or comforted by a poem, that's just charming and sweet about nothing too terrible. Or one can be incredibly depressed by such a poem."

He went on to argue that it is such a personal experience that "it would be an act of betrayal and dishonesty to suggest that there were poems that work." In talking to others about what reading means to them, I was able to corroborate this, as while one friend said "Reading soothes me, calms me, helps me at times to make decisions," another told me "I don't read when I'm stressed though because it's like my brain is too loud for me to focus on it."

On a more extreme note I also know the different effects it can have from personal experience; I am an avid reader and read to relax daily, however I have had negative experiences of reading. During a particularly stressful period one book inspired pretty terrifying nightmares, while during a period of depression I barely managed to pick up a book at all.

Negative experiences could be much more serious - a plot device could trigger someone suffering from PTSD, or some themes might be difficult for someone suffering from depression or eating disorders for example. But how do we know what is the wrong book and when? I read The Bell Jar at 17 and at the time I was happy and excited by the future, but I found the book devastating and cried for days. While I was upset, another person might instead find The Bell Jar helpful.

This raises the question of whether we should put trigger warnings on books. It is a widely-debated and incredibly controversial topic, but the bottom line comes down to practicality – we simply can't cover everything that might cause an adverse reaction. Equally, who would get to decide what is and isn't appropriate? While some books clearly aren't appropriate for some people, whether due to age or subject matter, it would cut too close to censorship if doctors, librarians, teachers, publishers or even MPs started controlling who can read what, even if it was in small ways.

However, there is no denying the positive effects of reading for many people. When I asked around, several people described how it helps them - with one friend claiming "no matter how low my mood gets, or how stressed I am, I know that picking up a book will instantly improve my mood…It calms me and helps clear my head." Another explained the aspects that we don't immediately think of: "reading is ritualistic, I get a coffee, sit in the same chair – the comforting routine instantly calms me. I guess it's like reading bedtime stories to children – my brain recognises the routine and tells my body to relax."

So, with clear benefits to reading for well-being, how do we overcome the potential problems? Simply encouraging people to read is a good start, and if young people pick up a book from this scheme and find comfort in it, or enjoy it so much that they want to find other books, then that can only be a good thing.

You can read more information on the Books on Prescription scheme on the Reading Well website.


Ellen Orange

Ellen Orange Contributor

I am a 24 year old Marketing Officer from the North East with a passion for arts and writing. I did a BA in English Literature and an MA in Twentieth and Twenty First Century Literature at Durham University, because I love books and reading! I have experience in writing for a variety of student publications, as well as having contributed to Living North, a regional magazine and Culture magazine, a supplement to regional newspaper, The Journal. I have been part of a Young Journalists scheme writing for NewcastleGateshead's Juice Festival, a young people's arts and culture festival, and have since become a Team Juice member. As well as reading and writing, I love theatre, photography and crafts.

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  • Luke Taylor

    On 16 March 2017, 11:27 Luke Taylor Contributor commented:

    Personally, I think reading is such a good way to relax, but obviously it depends on what you're reading. I don't think reading a heavy book like Lés Miserables is going to help with a lot...

  • Ellen Orange

    On 16 March 2017, 13:49 Ellen Orange Contributor commented:

    Yeah content is definitely key! Having said that though a big book like Les Mis or Game of Thrones could be perfect if you are reading for escapism? When I'm feeling particularly rubbish I like children's books - Roald Dahl, JK Rowling and Lemony Snicket because they are escapist fantasy, fun, easy to process and feel-good.

  • Abhishek S

    On 16 March 2017, 15:13 Abhishek S commented:

    Apart from actual content, another thing is medium available to read in market.
    In modern world hardcover copy is rapidly replaced with Kindle which should be fun for geeky youngsters?
    Also there are older audience who listen to book via podcast, a definite relaxing if not different experience? (I personally feel podcast is good to give eyes a break and switch to sense of hearing)
    As Luke Taylor already pointed out content matters, but i think reader won't choose content that would prove to be detrimental to mind & not able to relax? Some do prefer to read voluminous books in installments.

  • Ellen Orange

    On 16 March 2017, 15:24 Ellen Orange Contributor commented:

    Thanks for your comment Abhishek! Yeah I think e-readers definitely encouraged more young people into reading, and I love your idea of using a podcast or audiobook! I've started to listen to audiobooks on my commute and actually it is the perfect way to just be in the moment and not think about the stresses of the day.

    I don't think anyone would deliberately choose a book that would be detrimental of course, but often we don't know what is in it until we read it which is my only worry as books with serious issues in them, for example abuse, might negatively affect the reader if they are caught off guard. It is also a tough one to control though and I think you are right, we still have to trust readers to make their own decisions.

  • Bhavesh Jadva

    On 16 March 2017, 18:07 Bhavesh Jadva Voice Team commented:

    What an interesting thing. I'm glad it's becoming routine to prescribe reading as catharsis. What your friend said about their brain sometimes being too loud to read a book resonated with me deeply. Perhaps it's worth noting that some people only get any enjoyment from reading something that is harder work to absorb - maybe that's impossible but it sounds like it could be a thing. I know I get a great deal more pleasure from complex books compared to light hearted ones but that's perhaps the exact reason I don't read as much as I should!

  • Sam Nead

    On 16 March 2017, 18:41 Sam Nead Contributor commented:

    I think reading is a great form of therapy...for most people. As with everything, everyone is different and while most people will find a genre they enjoy and can read for pleasure or as therapy, but some people just won't because their brains don't work that way. I think it should definitely be encouraged though, as if you don't try you'll never find out!

    As for trigger warnings, books are already classified by age-range and I think taking it any further would only cause more problems than solutions. I understand that some people may be adversely affected by something they read, but speaking to others who have read the book or checking reviews on Goodreads could be a good way of avoiding that without needing to list the trigger warnings in the book.

  • Ellen Orange

    On 16 March 2017, 21:22 Ellen Orange Contributor commented:

    Checking things out on Goodreads is a great shout, thanks Sam!

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