Books can do wonders for our mental well-being
One of the most moving scenes in literature lies within the pages of the 1844 adventure novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” by French writer Alexandre Dumas. This captivating story trails the journey of Edmond Dantes, a simple merchant sailor who transforms into an enigmatic, revered aristocrat through the power of reading books.
At the beginning of the story, everything seems to be going well in Edmond’s life: He receives a promotion at work and is soon to wed his beloved fiancee. However, due to conspiracies against him, Edmond is unfairly imprisoned and his entire world darkens. During his time in prison, he contemplates suicide until he chances upon a fellow Italian prisoner, Abbe Faria. The intellectual priest is described as a brilliant thinker — he has 5,000 books in his library in Rome and speaks several languages. Together, they conspire to escape by digging a tunnel. At the same time, Abbe decides to impart his knowledge to Edmond over the next few years, focusing on history, art, philosophy, science, and languages. Edmond transforms from a naive, simple-minded sailor into an intellectual and profound Count of Monte Cristo.
Since time immemorial, stories have elevated, enlightened and entertained us. It is said that the ancient library of Thebes had the phrase “Healing place of the soul” inscribed over its entrance. During the First World War, British librarians were posted at military camps and as volunteers at hospitals to hand out books to wounded soldiers to speed their recuperation and assuage stress and homesickness. The word “bibliotherapy” was coined in a 1916 Atlantic Monthly article titled “A Literary Clinic.” It was written by essayist Samuel McChord Crothers and describes how patients can be treated with personalized book recommendations. Interestingly, the word bibliotherapy is made up of the Greek words for “book” and “healing.”
Bibliotherapy is now widely used by therapists, coaches, librarians, teachers and parents to prescribe a tailored reading list to people who are facing specific challenges. Words can serve as a remedy for the mind, heart and soul. Selecting the right books that reflect the reader’s challenges is a crucial part of the healing process, as it enables them to relate to the protagonist, understand their emotions, and learn effective coping strategies. On the brighter side, those looking for escapism can live vicariously through experiences and adventures found in the pages of a book.
By immersing ourselves in the right books, we can reap myriad emotional, physical and mental benefits. According to research published by the University of Sussex in 2009, reading for just six minutes is enough to reduce stress levels by 68 percent. Another study by psychology professor Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto shows that reading fiction can increase our empathy and social intelligence, allowing us to better connect with others, understand their feelings and share their experiences. Reading can also prompt us to change our behavior, according to a 2012 study by Ohio State University.
Therapists who are trained in bibliotherapy usually have a list of books that address a variety of challenges, such as depression, relationship discord, anxiety, drug abuse, eating disorders, abuse, grief, and anger. For example, the UK-based Reading Agency has been working with public libraries and leading health agencies to deliver the “Reading Well Books on Prescription” program. Health professionals can now prescribe a list of books, which they can access via public libraries, to help manage a person’s mental health and well-being.
The books list for young people covers themes such as anxiety, autism, body image and eating disorders, depression, bullying, and self-esteem. Other book lists include recommendations for children, people with long-term conditions, and those living with dementia. The agency has also launched the “Mood-boosting Books” scheme to promote uplifting novels, poetry and non-fiction titles that have been recommended by reading groups.
By immersing ourselves in the right books, we can reap myriad emotional, physical and mental benefits.
The free, six-week online course delivered by the University of Warwick on the subject of “Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing” explores six emotional themes and their confluence with literary works. The themes are: How poetry can help us cope with the mental and emotional stresses of modern life; what Philip Sidney's sonnets and Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” can teach us about recovering from heartbreak; what William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and the poetry of William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy can teach us about grief; how poetry penned during the First World War can help us empathize with trauma; what literary works people have resorted to during bouts of depression; and how to understand aging and dementia.
By compiling the best literary works into compact reading lists according to various emotional needs, people can begin a healing process that seeps deep into their psyche. I love what American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald said about connecting with people through stories: “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Indeed, we can always find solace in the pages of a good book.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.