by Rob Whitley, PhD: New research explores the impact of reading on various aspects of mental health.
Many bookworms remain worried that the ubiquitous use of social media is leading to a decline in reading books. But a number of surveys indicate that book-reading trends have actually remained stable over the last two decades.
For example, a 2017 Gallup Poll found that 35 percent of Americans read 10 or more books per year, the same level as 2002. Likewise, a Pew Research Forum survey found that book-reading habits remained largely unchanged from 2012 to 2016, with the average American reading 4 books per year.
Interestingly, this survey found that 27 percent of Americans did not read any books at all in 2016.
A relatively unknown mental health intervention is “bibliotherapy” or “reading therapy.” This mainly refers to structured book-reading programs run by clinics, libraries, or schools aimed at promoting recovery in people with mental health difficulties.
Such groups remain uncommon, despite the efforts of organizations such as the American Library Association, which houses a number of bibliotherapy resources on their website for adults and children.
The term bibliotherapy is also used to refer to self-initiated book reading pursued by an individual with mental illness. This can be supported by a clinician, family member or peer supporter, or simply pursued alone.
Several studies have examined whether bibliotherapy can facilitate recovery from mental illness. One classic study found a decrease in depressive symptoms after a program of bibliotherapy, a finding repeated in more recent meta-analyses and systematic reviews.
Interestingly, several studies indicate that reading works of fiction can be of particular benefit to people with or without mental health difficulties. These studies indicate that reading fiction can increase reader empathy, social skills, and inter-personal understandings (known as “theory of mind”).
This research indicates that readers can deeply engage with characters and scenarios, giving them a better understanding of our shared humanity and common struggles. Indeed, leading expert Dr. Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto notes that “fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience.”
Building on this research, I often recommend works of fiction to students in order to increase understandings about mental health. Two favourites are The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Path, both of which give readers a deep understanding of the alienation, loneliness, shaming, stigma and social exclusion that is often experienced by people with mental health difficulties.
Autobiography and Recovery Narratives
A number of courageous people with mental illness have published poignant autobiographical memoirs detailing their life experience. These writings often portray both the suffering and distress caused by mental illness, as well as the journey of recovery and strategies of resilience.
Interestingly, a just-released review paper by Dr. Mike Slade and colleagues at the University of Nottingham examined how people with mental illness are affected by reading such “recovery narratives.” Results indicate that reading these narratives can increase connectedness and understandings of recovery, while validating personal experience and reducing stigma.
Popular autobiographies include The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks, outlining life with schizophrenia, and Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, describing life with depression. These books offer hope and inspiration by illuminating the realities of recovery in the face of adversity. I recommend such books to people with mental illness regularly.
Religion and Spirituality
Finally, much research indicates a strong and consistent relationship between religiosity and mental health. An integral part of religiosity includes the regular reading of sacred texts, which can provide much solace and support to believers with mental health issues.
This is evidenced by my own research on recovery from mental illness in African-Americans. In the course of this research, many participants report that Bible study, devotional texts, and other religious readings have facilitated their recovery, with one participant memorably stating “that is what has really been making me stay sane.”
By the same token, evidence suggests that mindfulness-based approachescan enhance recovery from mental illness. In one of my ongoing studies, young men with mental health difficulties often report reading mindfulnessbooks to promote their own mental health, with Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now frequently mentioned.
To conclude, books are an invaluable but underutilized resource that can increase empathy, enhance recovery and inspire those with mental health difficulties. As such, reading should be encouraged for everybody, but particularly those with mental illness—whether through formal bibliotherapy groups or individual prompting from family, friends or clinicians.
On the death of his beloved younger sister, the famed Victorian writer Lord Thomas Macaulay wrote “that I have not utterly sunk under this blow, I owe chiefly to literature. Literature has saved my life and my reason.”
Rob Whitley, Ph.D., is the Principal Investigator of the Social Psychiatry Research and Interest Group (SPRING) at the Douglas Hospital Research Center. He is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University. He has published over 100 papers in the field of social psychiatry, and currently leads numerous externally-funded research projects. One of his primary interests is men’s mental health.