Why Bibliotherapy Offers a Health Boost

By Ben Hamill - November 15 2019

Bibliotherapy is a modern word for an ancient practice – reading texts that are prescribed, as medicine might be, to help with healing. The material can be nonfictional or fictional, depending on the “patient’s” needs. The core idea is that books can help transform the way people live and look at life, helping them to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles.

Although the concept has quite a following in the United States and Britain, it is only just coming to mainstream public attention in Canada. While it might sound a little romantic or fanciful, there is plenty of scientific evidence on the benefits of reading.

Studies show that regular readers live longer, are less stressed, sleep better and have more self-esteem. Bibliotherapy seeks to formalise and quantify the reading treatment and therapy process through its Social and Clinical streams. The approaches differ, but their philosophy is the same.

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Clinical Bibliotherapy

Clinical Bibliotherapy is targeted and precise. Patients, who are being treated by psychiatrists and other medically trained doctors, complete a questionnaire about their reading habits and personal problems.

Their medical professionals will then “prescribe” a reading list, usually in conjunction with other treatments and talk therapy. If they’re feeling heartbroken or angry, for instance, they might be told to read Brontë or Hemingway. Someone grappling with grief and the meaning of life could be given a dose of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Social Bibliotherapy

Dr Natalia Tukhareli, Library and Information Services Director at the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, is the country’s best-known proponent of Social Bibliotherapy. Based in Toronto, she has been working hard to popularise the practice across Canada for the past decade.

While Bibliotherapy originated in medical settings, Tukhareli’s programmes seek to take the practice further. In her words, “this is the future”, and she hopes to use her courses to build confidence, resilience and general well-being.

Tukhareli bases her practice on “shared reading”, an intervention model used by several London groups. One person reads a passage aloud, and everyone is then encouraged to share the thoughts, memories or feelings that are evoked. Educators and librarians in retirement villages, community centres, prisons and other group institutions often use the technique.

Packages of prescribed reading can be created, to help facilitate a group working to support each other through specific issues, questions or life in general. Harnessing the power of the written word in a concrete way makes a kind of intrinsic sense, and Tukhareli is currently involved in Canada’s fist government-funded Social Bibliotherapy pilot project. Canada seems to be ready to start embracing the practice of reading for healing.

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