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When doctors prescribe books to heal the mind

27 December 2013

From The Boston Globe:

More than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Fewer than half receive any treatment; even fewer have access to psychotherapy. Around the turn of the millennium, antidepressants became the most prescribed kind of drug in the United States. In the United Kingdom, 1 in 6 adults has taken one.

But what if a scientist were to discover a treatment that required minimal time and training to administer, and didn’t have the side effects of drugs? In 2003, a psychiatrist in Wales became convinced that he had. Dr. Neil Frude noticed that some patients, frustrated by year-long waits for treatment, were reading up on depression in the meantime. And of the more than 100,000 self-help books in print, a handful often seemed to work.

This June, the National Health Service launched a program that’s allowing doctors across England to act upon Frude’s insight. The twist is that the books are not just being recommended, they’re being “prescribed.” If your primary care physician diagnoses you with “mild to moderate” depression, one of her options is now to scribble a title on a prescription pad. You take the torn-off sheet not to the pharmacy but to your local library, where it can be exchanged for a copy of“Overcoming Depression,” “Mind Over Mood,” or “The Feeling Good Handbook.” And depression is only one of over a dozen conditions treated. Other titles endorsed by the NHS include “Break Free from OCD,” “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway,” “Getting Better Bit(e) by Bit(e),” and “How to Stop Worrying.”

The NHS’s Books on Prescription program is only the highest-profile example of a broader boom in “bibliotherapy.” The word is everywhere in Britain this year, although—or because—it means different things to different people. In London, a painter, a poet, and a former bookstore manager have teamed up to offer over-the-counter “bibliotherapy consultations”: after being quizzed about their literary tastes and personal problems, the worried well-heeled pay 80 pounds for a customized reading list. The NHS’s own promotion of reading goes beyond self-help books. Its Mood-Boosting Books program recommends fiction and poetry. Its public health and mental health budgets fund nonprofits such as The Reader Organization, which gathers people who are unemployed, imprisoned, old, or just lonely to read poems and fiction aloud to one another.

. . . .

In 1916, the clergyman Samuel Crothers coined the term “bibliotherapy,” positing tongue-in-cheek that “a book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific.” In the intervening century, doctors, nurses, librarians, and social workers have more seriously championed “bibliopathy,” “bibliocounseling,” “biblioguidance,” and “literatherapy”—all variations on the notion that reading can heal.

Only recently, however, have the mental health effects of one genre—self-help books—been rigorously studied. As early as 1997, a randomized trial found bibliotherapy supervised by therapists no less effective in treating unipolar depression than individual or group therapy. More surprisingly, a 2007 literature review by the same researcher found that books treated anxiety just as effectively without a therapist’s guidance as with it. A 2004 meta-analysis comparing bibliotherapy for anxiety and depression to short-term talk therapy found books “as effective as professional treatment of relatively short duration.”

Link to the rest at The Boston Globe (this article may disappear behind a paywall)

Non-Fiction

2 Comments to “When doctors prescribe books to heal the mind”

  1. Read! The use of bibliotherapy makes a great deal of sense in providing many answers.

  2. Shame they didn’t run tests with the romance genre. I’ve got a hunch that’s bibliotherapy at its finest.

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