What a great word! A word that I had never heard before in my life until this week. The concept and practice has been around since ancient times, but this word was only coined in 1916. Sort of like PTSD, this trauma has been with us since ancient times but the grouping of 4 words “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD) was coined in the 1970s by an American doctor dealing with American military personnel after they returned from Viet Nam. More on my discovery of the word later in this musing.
Obviously, I cannot write from my font of knowledge, so I am going to pluck snippets of information from four sources. (Google the word and you will find a lot more than the four sources that I am going to use.)
Of course, I start with this source. It is truly everyone’s encyclopedia.
Bibliotherapy (also referred to as book therapy, poetry therapy or therapeutic storytelling) is a creative arts therapies modality that involves storytelling or the reading of specific texts with the purpose of healing. It uses an individual's relationship to the content of books and poetry and other written words as therapy. It has been shown to be effective in the treatment of depression.
According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, in his monumental work Bibliotheca Historica, there was a phrase above the entrance to the royal chamber where books were stored by King Ramses II of Egypt. Considered to be the oldest known library motto in the world, "the house of healing for the soul".
After the term bibliotherapy was coined by Samuel McChord Crothers in an August 1916 Atlantic Monthly article, it eventually found its way into the medical lexicon.
By the 1920s, there were also training programs in bibliotherapy. One of the first to offer such training was the School of Library Science at Western Reserve University followed by a program at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine.
In its most basic form, bibliotherapy is using books to aid people in solving the issues that they may be facing at a particular time. It consists of selecting reading material relevant to a client's life situation.
Of necessity, bibliotherapy originally used existing texts. Literature that touched on the particular subject relevant to the child provided the source material. (For example, Romeo and Juliet is typically read in 8th or 9th grade as Romeo is 15 and Juliet is 13; students at that age can identify with them.) Recently it has become possible to find texts targeted to the situation; e.g. many of The Berenstain Bears books target particular behaviors and responses to certain situations.
Typically, a bibliotherapist will recommend a book or books based on their preferred modality and on the patient’s specific challenges. A cognitive-behavioral therapist, for instance, may recommend a self-help workbook outlining research-supported CBT principles; a therapist specializing in trauma, on the other hand, may recommend a novel about a character who endured childhood abuse.
The patient will then, on their own time, read the book or complete the workbook exercise as prescribed. Upon returning to therapy, the book or exercise will be discussed and used as a jumping-off point to explore coping mechanisms, personal history, or other factors relevant to the therapeutic experience.
In a therapeutic setting, bibliotherapy is thought to be effective because it provides an additional outlet for patients to work through problems and can help an individual recognize that they are not alone in their struggles.
The idea that reading books has a positive effect on mood and mind is not new; indeed, many ancient societies, including the Greeks and the Egyptians, viewed libraries as sacred spaces with (metaphorical) healing properties.
Some organizations, such as the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy, offer certifications for interested practitioners and have set official guidelines for the practice of bibliotherapy.
Several years ago, I was given as a gift a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence. I have to admit that at first I didn’t really like the idea of being given a reading “prescription.”
But the session was a gift, and I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the initial questionnaire about my reading habits that the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud, sent me. Nobody had ever asked me these questions before, even though reading fiction is and always has been essential to my life.
I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote.
Today, bibliotherapy takes many different forms, from literature courses run for prison inmates to reading circles for elderly people suffering from dementia.
For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain.
Studies published in 2006 and 2009 showed that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others.
So even if you don’t agree that reading fiction makes us treat others better, it is a way of treating
ourselves better. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state,
similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.
(On Tuesday of this week, I got the following e-mail from Neil, a great friend of mine who lives in
Toronto - Hi Andrew: I just came across this and I thought you might find it interesting. How right
WHEN THE PANDEMIC STRUCK, in March 2020, Anne Boulton was already feeling overwhelmed. She was pursuing a PhD at Laurentian University, which meant teaching in the English department and spending her days at home reviewing readings on literature and psychoanalysis for her thesis. But personal issues were bubbling just below the surface. “When COVID happened,” she says, “suddenly you were faced with your own isolation.” She wanted to better address the strain she was dealing with.
Boulton contacted Hoi Cheu, her supervisor at Laurentian. He was trained in bibliotherapy, using his dual background in psychology and literary studies to recommend specific texts for people coping with life challenges from loneliness to mental illness.
Though not a stand-alone clinical practice in Canada, clinical bibliotherapy is a method used by professionals who already have certification in counselling, therapy, and clinical therapy and want to help patients seeking an additional outlet. Nonclinical bibliotherapy can’t replace professional help for patients with mental illnesses; instead, it is often used in conjunction with other forms of clinical therapy.
Cheu, based in Sudbury, Ontario, first learned of bibliotherapy during his undergraduate degree, when he came across English professor Joseph Gold’s Read For Your Life, which outlines the benefits of bibliotherapy. In fact, the British-born Gold is widely credited with bringing bibliotherapy to Canada.
Proponents of bibliotherapy firmly believe in the potential of literature to provide people the language to help them make sense of their experiences. Fiction does this especially well by nudging readers to substitute their sense of self for that of a character. Enveloped in the perspective of another person, the reader can ponder their choices with a greater degree of objectivity.
The case for bibliotherapy is further bolstered by developments in cognitive science, which indicate a range of benefits. Research suggests that regular readers are likely less stressed and more empathetic. One study by Yale University even suggested that reading books could help people live longer.
BOULTON ENDED her treatment after five sessions with Cheu, but she credits those sessions with validating her relationship to reading. She sees certain books as “old friends” she can return to and finds comfort in rereading them.
I am not surprised that Bibliotherapy exists, I am just surprised that I had never heard of it before.
I have noticed that book sales over the internet have picked up during the pandemic, as I have mentioned before. But this current month has surpassed every month in our history as far as the number of orders go. The orders come from all over the world. Today I sent off a book to Australia. Last Sunday, we got two orders from Alberta. One of the buyers was an Addictions Counsellor.
Maybe I am a Bibliotherapist?