Self-medicate with readingEducation | Brighten Youth Edu Centre 20 Apr 2021
We all know that books, paired with a regular reading habit, are good for us. People who read regularly have been shown to have lower blood pressure, better sleep patterns and improved brain connectivity.
However, what impact could reading have on our ability to face personal crises? Bibliotherapy is an ancient idea. Seneca argued that reading books was a helpful distraction during sickness and convalescence, and the things learned during reading could help safeguard against future misfortunes like poverty.
Cicero considered reading a lifetime occupation and daily pursuit: "Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goes out. The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead."
During the contemporary period, the term "bibliotherapy" first appeared in a 1916 article from The Atlantic Monthly entitled A Literary Clinic. The author of the article characterized the practice as a new science after stumbling across a "bibliotherapeutic institute" in the basement of a church that dispensed reading recommendations with a healing value.
Sigmund Freud used bibliotherapy as part of his analytical practices, believing that it would aid communication between the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain. The practice was then closely related to helping soldiers recover from the trauma of World War I.
The term itself was coined by American author and ministerSamuel McChord Crothers in 1914. Society hostess and philanthropist Helen Mary Gaskell (1853-1940) was an early champion, creating the British War Library - a venture that was duplicated in America a few years later and aimed to provide reading material to soldiers for healing purposes.
Nowadays, conative bibliotherapy has been helpful to groups as diverse as prison inmates with depressive symptoms (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23834667/), to older people battling the onset of dementia (https://mh.bmj.com/content/early/2020/10/15/medhum-2020-011898). None of these practices have anything to do with the pushy, evangelical reader, forcing books upon potentially unwilling participants, insisting that they "must" read a certain text and disregarding the fact that books mean different things at different times to different people.
A network of therapists that use bibliotherapy as a tool of care spans the globe. The practice is often focused on the individual, as clients and therapists explore a subject together. Most frequently, advice is sought at a moment of transition: becoming a parent, career stagnation, bereavement, retirement, etc.
Perhaps a person is simply a "lapsed" reader, wanting to find their way back to a habit that gave them pleasure and solace, or maybe fit something they only usually have the time to do on holiday into their everyday life. Readers live a thousand lives and - according to the bibliotherapists - the habit makes each one of those lives better.
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