Doctors Are Now Prescribing Books to Treat Depression

Reading to feel less isolated may be more than just a poetic thought


William Nicholson once said, "We read to know that we are not alone." And that sentiment, of reading to connect with the world and to feel less isolated, may be more than just a poetic thought. Doctors are now prescribing books to patients with depression, hoping that reading will help them find connections.

Leah Price at the Boston Globe reports on the a new program that launched in the United Kingdom this June:

 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.”

This kind of so called "bibliotherapy" isn't a totally new idea. The word was coined in 1916 by a clergyman named Samuel Crothers, but he certainly wasn't referring to self-help books. In 1966, The American Library Association began talking about bibliotherapy. Today, they define the word this way:

The use of books selected on the basis of content in a planned reading program designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance. Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader's own experience. Assistance of a trained psychotherapist is advised.

In many cases, bibliotherapy is used with children during tough times. Many might remember books for kids about how to handle the death of a pet or a grandparent. But this program in the U.K. goes above and beyond, hoping that self-help books can aid adults in need as well. And nobody knows what's going to happen with this program and whether it will work. It's easy for a writer to say that reading heals, but only time will tell whether or not books can actually help the depressed.

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