Everyone knows that curling up with a good novel is relaxing but what if reading can do more than just boost your mood? Experts believe reading can transform lives, helping people deal with a variety of psychological and emotional problems, from stress and anxiety to grief and depression.
Using books as therapy or bibliotherapy as it is known, is not a new idea. Sigmund Freud used literature during psychoanalysis sessions with his patients and books were used to help soldiers recovering from physical and emotional trauma following the First and Second World Wars.
Now reading as therapy is set to enjoy a resurgence. In May, a new pilot program, Books on Prescription, will launch in libraries across the Central West area of New South Wales. Under the scheme, funded by a $71,000 library development grant, GPs and other health professionals will be able to recommend self-help books on prescription from around 14 public libraries for people dealing with a variety of psychological issues.
"Books on Prescription is a highly effective way of helping people with common mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, phobias and eating disorders" says Jan Richards, Central West libraries manager in Orange. "There is first class clinical evidence to show that books can be just as effective as other forms of therapy."
Richards says the concept for the scheme came from the UK's Books on Prescription program where doctors can prescribe self-help books or mood-boosting works of literature to treat those suffering from mild to moderate mental illness. She hopes the Central West's Books on Prescription scheme "will complement traditional medicine and that in partnership with the medical community we'll be able to provide positive health outcomes."
UK research has found that reading is more relaxing than listening to music, going for a walk or having a cup of tea, reducing stress levels by 68 per cent. Cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis from the consultancy Mindlab International found that reading silently for just six minutes, slowed the heart rate and eased muscle tension in research volunteers.
In Victoria, Australia, Susan McLaine, project coordinator at the State Library of Victoria, has been developing the State Library's Book Well program since 2010. She says that whilst there are similar Books on Prescription schemes at different stages of development in Australia there is no state-wide or national model.
Inspired by the UK's successful Get Into Reading program, the Victorian Book Well scheme uses literature in the form of fiction, inspirational stories and poetry within read-aloud reading groups to improve health and wellbeing. "I think bibliotherapy development using imaginative literature shows great therapeutic potential," says McLaine who is also a PhD candidate in the study of bibliotherapy. The aim, she explains, "is to assist people to think about more creative ways to solve personal problems, through reading about how fictional characters similar to them faced problems and resolved them. These characters often seem to speak directly to us; keeping us company, reminding us we are not the only one feeling this way and at times offering us hope."
Associate professor Vijaya Manicavasagar, director of psychological services at the Black Dog Institute, agrees that prescribing reading in mild cases of depression "if it is part of a concerted effort to lift someone's mood, is a terrific idea."
Her own book, Overcoming Panic and Agoraphobia, is one of the books recommended on the UK's list of Books on Prescription.
Reading literature can give "a new perspective on life and problems that you might be encountering so you get to see how other people might have dealt with a similar problem or coped with a particular situation so it exposes you to new ways of thinking, a bit like cognitive therapy. As well as pure escapism, the experience of identifying with a character who comes through adversity may also build self-confidence."
Manicavasagar believes books can help a person de-stress by changing their emotional state. "You might start reading a book feeling quite strung out and anxious but if you really get into it you are transported to a different emotional state which is usually better than the one you started off with," she explains.
But, she stresses, "if you have got a serious psychiatric disorder like a major depression where your concentration is impaired and where you are finding it difficult to follow things or you have a psychotic illness for example, then of course prescribing reading is not going to be all that helpful."
For those dealing with the loss of loved ones Manicavasagar recommends Salvation Creek: An Unexpected Life by Susan Duncan. "It is a about dealing with grief - which in the case of the author has to do with the deaths of her brother and husband. I think it is an uplifting book which could be helpful for people dealing with major life changes."
A selection of mood-boosting books from the The UK's Reading Agency
The Beach Café by Lucy Diamond
Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani
Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
Life with the Lid Off by Nicola Hodgkinson
Men at Work by Mike Gayle
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Stop What You're Doing and Read This - Various contributors
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Sydney Morning Herald