What does the research tell us about reading and mental health?
There is increased evidence and attention being given to the mental health benefits of reading. A 2009 study conducted by the University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68% (Lewis). The study watched a group of participants as they engaged in activities that raised their tension levels and heart rates. They then tested the effects of a range of methods to relax – and reading was the most effective (Lewis, 2009). According to the leader of the study, cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis, participants only needed to engage with reading for six minutes to ease muscle tension and slow their heart rate. Dr Lewis states, “This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination, as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.” (Huffpost, 2017).
The research also tells us that reading can also enhance social skills – a boon to any teenager struggling with social anxiety, worries or going through difficult friendship times. According to an article in the Huff Post, “…a 2013 study published in the journal Science, for example, found that individuals who read fiction may have better “theory of mind” – that is, the ability to understand that people’s beliefs, desires, and thoughts are different to their own” (2017). Similarly, a 2013 study by Oxford University Press of 96 participants with mild depression found that those who read saw improvements in their symptoms, while those who did not read as a form of treatment did not see any change at all.
A very contemporary research paper by Kathleen A. Adler, titled Reading: The Key to Addressing Students’ Social Emotional Needs in the Time of COVID-19, focuses on the impact reading can have on students struggling with increased anxiety and emotional distress as a result of the ongoing pandemic, loss of time in schools and lockdowns (2021). I find all this information extraordinary!! Anything that has these proven results should surely be being prescribed as a treatment by GPs?!
Well, sure enough, it turns out there is actually a therapeutic approach to mental health that uses books as medicine, known as “bibliotherapy”. The term bibliotherapy is, of course, derived from the ancient Greek words “biblio” (book) and “therapy” (healing). It describes the use of the healing power of literature to support people who are struggling with some mood disorders, or simply going through particular changes or confronting difficult times in their lives. While people who practice bibliotherapy may sometimes “prescribe” informative or self-help books, more often, it is works of fiction and poetry that are used to help patients understand perspectives other than their own, make sense of a difficult past or upsetting symptoms, or experience feelings of hope, contentment, and empathy (Psychology Today, 2021). And while bibliotherapy is not intended to replace traditional therapeutic methods, it clearly supports them and can produce remarkable results.
Bibliotherapy at ATC
At our ATC iCentres, we have a team of passionate staff who are happy to help your students find books that will support them through different stages, interests, difficulties and challenges. We also encourage sustained silent reading as much as possible – in the Middle School, Year 8 and 9 classes have been coming to the library to experiment with “Reading fort Mindfulness” activities. In these lessons, students listen to a relaxation script and then quietly and individually engage in reading, while gentle music plays in the background. Even the most wriggly Year 9 students succumb to the relaxing vibes eventually!
If you are interested in the ideas behind reading as a way to address emotional and mental health, you might like to try some of these for further reading:
1. The State Library of Victoria actually has a Bibliotherapy Podcast.
2. The “School of Life” also offers bibliotherapy services.
3. An article from the New Yorker – Can reading make you happier?
4. Harper’s Bazaar article.
Head of Library Services
1. Adler, K. (2021). Reading: The Key to Addressing Students’ Social Emotional Needs in the Time of COVID-19. New Jersey English Journal, Vol 10.
2. HuffPost. (2017). Five Ways Reading Can Improve Health and Well-Being. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/five-ways-reading-can-imp_b_12456962
3. Lewis, D. (2009). Galaxy Stress Research. Mindlab International.
4. Psychology Today (2021). Bibliotherapy. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/therapy-types/bibliotherapy