1 Feb 2013

Why reading is good for your mental health

It seems being a bookworm is good for you, and people across England with mild to moderate mental health concerns are set to be prescribed self-help books. What books would you recommend?

Get your nose in a book to help stay sane (Getty)

People suffering from panic attacks, anxiety and depression will be written a reading prescription by GPs, with books available to borrow at local libraries.

The “Reading Well: Books on Prescription” scheme will be rolled out across GPs’ surgeries later this year and follows a scheme in Wales as well as pilots in other areas. The 30 self-help titles range from The Feeling Good Handbook to Panic Attacks: What They Are, Why They Happen and What You Can Do About Them.

“The scheme aims to bring reading’s healing benefits to the 6 million people with anxiety and depression,” said Miranda McKearney, chief executive of the Reading Agency charity which has helped to develop the initiative.

“There is growing evidence showing that self help reading can help people with certain mental health conditions get better.”

Professor Stephen Joseph from the University of Nottingham said the books could help patients and doctors – provided they were the right kind of self-help books coming from a scientific basis.

“As someone who has written that type of book, I know from the correspondence I get that people really find them helpful. And another reason it is a good idea is that along the way, it will help inform GPs about this kind of issue.

“GPs are notoriously badly informed about psychological therapies, but this will help them and help the patient,” he told Channel 4 News.

And that’s not where it ends – experts also believe that reading more generally can be helpful to improve the wellbeing of the nation. The Reading Agency charity hopes that people will also turn to novels, poetry and reading groups to feel better on a more regular basis.

It’s all part of an old concept with a new name: bibliotherapy.

“One sheds one’s sickness in books,” DH Lawrence once wrote – and indeed research in the past has shown that just six minutes of reading can be enough to reduce stress levels by more than two thirds.

Books to get you through a rainy Friday in February

True Grit, by Charles Portis
It's a fantastic book. It has become popular again through the Coen brothers' film - it's a really positive book about relying on yourself and getting through difficult situations without expecting other people to help you through. And it goes through a bleak midwinter landscape so it's rather good for winter.

The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim It's a real pick-me-up for winter, always very positive in a light way. It's about two ladies in Hampstead who are feeling low and then they see an advert for a castle for hire for a month in Italy... It's really lovely, enchanting and positive.

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna I regularly prescribe this and it's a positive, upbeat book about a middle-aged man having a mid-life crisis. He is going off on a tedious assignment and he hits a hare by accident. He gets out of the car, picks up the hare, and goes off on a series of adventures in a beautiful Finnish landscape.

These recommendations are from bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud.

Ella Berthoud is a bibliotherapist with the School of Life, where she sees “patients” in one-on-one therapy sessions before writing them a book prescription.

“Bibliotherapy is the art of prescribing fiction in order to cure people of life’s ailments,” she told Channel 4 News.

“We ask people a series of questions about their reading history, what they love reading, what they hate, what their reading childhood was like, who their reading companions are – plus what issues are going on in their lives, from light problems to major crises like divorce.

“We’re not qualified medical therapists, our background is knowing about literature and that is what we’re prescribing. We come from a background of having read huge amounts of fiction. I feel that you can genuinely help people through life’s hurdles by reading the right novel, particularly, at the right time.”

She said all books were helpful to a degree but stressed that the right choice was key.

“If you’re depressed, reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath might just tip you over the edge,” she said.

What books would you recommend? Get in touch on Twitter @channel4news, Facebook or Google+.