What is bibliotherapy?  How reading improves mental health – Deseret News
What is bibliotherapy?  How reading improves mental health – Deseret News

About half of U.S. adults say someone in their family has had a “severe mental health crisis,” according to a 2022 CNN and KFF survey.

In 2024, St. Augustine’s University of Health Sciences reported data showing that nearly 1 in 5 adults had an anxiety disorder in the past year.

To stay mentally healthy, medical professionals suggest getting outside, socializing with friends, getting consistent exercise, and more. However, an alternative method to these suggestions is floating around the internet and claims to keep the brain functioning as healthily as possible.

Reading is the supposed solution.

Dwayne Dougall, a professor of linguistics and computer science at Brigham Young University, has called the effect of reading on the brain “psycholinguistics.”

“Reading is the consumption and processing of information through written media,” Dougal told the Deseret News. Different texts “evoke emotional responses based on their content, form, and the state and experience of the recipient.”

One particular therapist has been vocal about how using psycholinguistics with her patients has proven beneficial.

Bibliotherapist Ella Bertou compared literature to other forms of art, saying that reading gives the brain more of an escape than listening to music, going to an art gallery or watching a movie.

She told the BBC: “With a film or a TV show you’re given the visual effects, whereas with a novel you come up with them yourself, so it’s actually a much more powerful event because you’re involved.”

What is “bibliotherapy”?

The American Library Association defines bibliotherapy as the reading 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.”

Bibliotherapists choose books for their patients that have characters similar to them. As the character progresses through the plot, the reader can cathartically work with their own emotions.

The complexity of books is a product of the complexity of the human mind. Ann Jamieson, a professor of literature at the University of Utah, told the Deseret News, “The effects of reading are often not what the main content of a book can offer.”

“Not that books about good, happy people produce good, happy readers, or that books about mean acts or tragic events harm mental health, or that reading about people ‘like us’ necessarily helps us feel included, or that reading about ‘others’ it necessarily helps us to be less self-centered (although all these effects can happen),” she said.

A study published in the American Psychological Association reported a link between bibliotherapy and reduced depressive episodes.

Berthoud has been in the bibliotherapy business for over 10 years. She explained what a bibliotherapy session looks like, writing: “I will refer you to books that point to feelings that you may have often felt but perhaps never understood clearly before. I will prescribe books that open up new perspectives, shed light on your life, and re-enchant the world for you.

Reading helps with “that whole ‘being human’ thing”

Jason Kerr, a scholar of 17th-century literature at Brigham Young University, has had a career built on reading.

However, outside of the reading she does for work, Kerr told the Deseret News she gets significant mental health benefits from reading texts without “any real obligations or deadlines.” For Kerr, enjoyable, noncommittal reading comes in the form of contemporary poetry.

He added: “Novels are a rare luxury; starting one feels like a vacation.”

Compassion and connection with others improves mental health, according to the journal Healthcare. Since books are known to teach readers empathy, social psychologist Emanuele Castano of the University of Trento published a study in Science to determine whether a particular genre teaches empathy best.

The researchers gave participants specific excerpts from three genres, including fiction, nonfiction, and literary fiction. A separate control group was assigned nothing. After completing the excerpts, each participant took a test assessing their ability to empathize.

Nonfiction, genre fiction, and no reading at all produced similar “insignificant” results. However, “scores were significantly higher in the literary fiction condition.”

Castano defined literary fiction as writing that “defamiliarizes its readers.” He compared it to romances and other genres written for entertainment, and said that literary texts “involve their readers creatively as writers.” Famous examples of literary fiction include books such as Of Mice and Men and The Great Gatsby.

Jamison said studies like these “make intuitive sense to me.”

“Reading literature is unlikely to directly help us provide more resources, but people continue to spend time and effort on it, which suggests there are other kinds of benefits,” she said.

Kerr added that difficult, complex reading has its own mental health benefits. In addition, reading theology “helped give me better frameworks to approach my life and my relationships with other people,” he said.

Difficult reading for Kerr provides tools “for working in this whole business of ‘being human.’

How to choose books that improve mental health

Finding books that reduce stress and increase empathy improves mental health.

Dwayne told the Deseret News how reading can affect his mood and emotions “in both positive and negative ways.” He explained that keeping his reading rooted “in real-world learning and exploration” gives him a consistently positive experience.

Dougal defined empathy as “a function of experience” and added that reading is an effective way to understand each other better.

“These shared or common experiences, especially when they are grounded in reality, allow for connections and emotional connections and understandings,” he said.

Complex books, contemporary poetry, religious texts, and anything that increases the capacity for empathy will increase connection with other people. This connection with others is in turn associated with increased mental well-being.

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *