This is a quotation from Nina George’s charming novel, The Little Paris Bookshop. Its protagonist, Perdu (how good is your French?), calls himself a literary apothecary. He prescribes books to address the ills of readers’ lives. This may sound fanciful but in fact bibliotherapy ‒ including novels, short stories, poetry ‒ is a recognised form of therapy. Susan McLaine shares with Aurora readers her experience in bibliotherapy.
Bibliotherapy is broadly defined as using books to help people deal with psychological, social and emotional problems. The concept of bibliotherapy is both old and new. Traditional applications use self-help books as an adjunct for mental illness. Contemporary definitions, on the other hand, use imaginative literature to promote good mental health and as such nurture our wellbeing. I practise creative bibliotherapy in community-based group settings. Group creative bibliotherapy has become a widely used form of bibliotherapy in community settings across the UK, Europe, the US and Australia.
Creative bibliotherapy programs are developed as a way to reach and connect with socially isolated and marginalised community members. The groups I lead are for people who are homeless or are at risk of being homeless and for those in the psycho-social rehabilitation unit within Port Phillip Prison. However, anyone can benefit from creative bibliotherapy groups; the program is developed around the idea of what it means to be human ‒ an experience we all share!
Research conducted by cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis offers further evidence that reading is good for you. In fact, the research showed reading works better and faster than other relaxation methods to reduce stress levels. Reading silently for six minutes reduces stress by 68 per cent. This was higher than listening to music at 61 per cent, having a ‘cuppa’ at 54 per cent, or going for a walk at 42 per cent.
More recently, studies involving creative bibliotherapy have collected evidence to show it has been successful in helping individuals with a wide range of psychological, emotional and social problems.
Creative bibliotherapy involves imaginative literature (fiction, inspirational stories, poetry) being read aloud in a group by a trained facilitator who then leads a conversation exploring the themes found in the literature as a way of providing a new perspective on a problem.
Psychologists believe reading is good for you because the mind has to concentrate on the reading and so the focus shifts, leading to an easing of the tensions around the heart and muscles. However reading is more than a distraction; it is an active engaging of the imagination, which causes you to enter what psychologists describe as an altered state of consciousness. Studies are beginning to show a strong link to a correlation between reading fiction and developing empathy.
The facilitator offers support, guidance and access to literature. The facilitator specifically selects a text suited to the group and encourages members to share stories relevant to the themes under discussion. Through discussion, a facilitator can explore the behaviours and attitudes of characters, transition points and moments of choice within the fictional narratives as a way to assist group members to explore their own problems and inner experiences from a ‘safe distance’.
With so many members of the community becoming more insular and perhaps disconnected, the possibilities of bibliotherapy are significant. In these groups no one had to read aloud or join the discussion unless they wished to do so. This approach provides the opportunity for the group members to be with other people without the pressure of an expectation to interact. Even though there is no pressure for anyone to interact, people feel safe to share because sharing relates back to the narrative and the focus reflects the text. Group bibliotherapy can help people find meaningful ways to connect and offers a practical alternative to nourish connection in contemporary society.
Susan McLaine has travelled to the UK to undertake further research and training in the field of bibliotherapy. Since 2009, she has been initiating Australian developments in bibliotherapy, including developing and co-ordinating the State Library of Victoria’s Book Well program. She has undertaken a PhD study, investigating how facilitators from non-clinical backgrounds can effectively deliver bibliotherapy to support the general well-being of individuals and communities. You may like to click here.