Bibliotherapy: Reading for Therapy

Bibliotherapy, as the name suggests, is a form of healing through the act of reading. A lot of research has been conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of Bibliotherapy. Last week, we at Daastan invited Damon over to host another Instagram live session. Damon is a psychology undergraduate student at University of Sussex and he was delighted to share his knowledge about Bibliotherapy with us. Here comes a recap of some of the most intriguing facts we learned about the power of reading. 


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Bibliotherapy is Therapeutic Reading

Book reading can help people overcome emotional, social, and psychological problems. The current research indicates that reading can be efficient in promoting general well-being and that it can potentially alleviate symptoms of inconvenient conditions such as mood disorders, phobias, anxiety disorders, and depressive episodes. As a result, clinics and communities alike may implement Bibliotherapy into traditional therapy programmes to improve outcome results for the patients. Both fiction and nonfiction work, such as biographies, poetry, fables, and novels can be selected for patients to read. Sometimes patients can choose their own literature, because this freedom can emanate motivation to read as well as provide self-insight. 

Another variant of Bibliotherapy is the increasingly common and popular self-help book. They are normally equipped with informative passages and guide individuals to learn more about their conditions. Coping mechanisms and renewed ways of thinking are also taught out by these books. Furthermore, self-help books can be acquired by anyone and be used as a stand-alone form of therapy. However, they can also be integrated into other intervention models such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Reading Has Perhaps Always Been Therapeutic 

Theories suggest that the ancient Greeks and Romans were first to discover the therapeutic benefits of reading. The well-known Greek philosopher Aristotle coined the metaphor “catharsis” in “Poetics”, meaning “purification of negative emotions” through art and reading. 

The first known methodized type of bibliotherapy in a clinical context can perhaps be dated back to Egypt’s 13th century. The staff at Cairo’s Al Mansour Hospital would read the Quran, in addition to medical treatment, to hospitalized patients. In similar fashion, the first church libraries containing religious books would bring peace and hope to believers, and bibliotherapy was thereby practiced by the church until the Renaissance. 

Moving forward to the 19th century, neurologist Sigmund Freud would still talk about the therapeutic effect of literature which essentially aligned with Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. In the mid and late 20th century, fairy tales, myths, and symbols would soon become focal points of Jungian psychoanalytic contexts in order to encourage self-development. 

Blending Bibliotherapy with Classic Therapy Conventions   

In 2013 a Scottish research team recruited more than 200 patients diagnosed with depression. Half of these patients were prescribed antidepressants while the other half participated in a therapy program involving the book “Overcoming Depression”. The patients who read also had complementary discussions with psychologists in the form of guided self-help CBT. 

When 4 months had passed, approximately 42% of patients who engaged in reading reported their degree of depression to reduce significantly compared to only 24% in the patient-medication group. After a whole year had passed, the bibliotherapy-group was more able to manage their depression than the medication-group. 

This piece of evidence favors the idea of blending bibliotherapy with other long-established varieties of therapy for best results. 

Overcoming Depression 

Numerous studies have revealed reading to be helpful for depressed patients (especially for those who present depression of milder severity). Maria Rosaria Gualano and her colleagues systematically reviewed 10 research reports that looked at the long-term effectiveness of bibliotherapy in depression treatment. Overall, the studies yielded mixed results. As previous research suggested, mild to moderate depression was found to be treated when bibliotherapy was combined with other therapies. There were also promising long-term effects: patients fully recovered in some cases. 

In general, however, bibliotherapeutic patients were more likely to relapse in comparison to those who would receive psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy for their depression. Bibliotherapy thus had weaker effects on treatment outcomes when compared with traditional programmes of therapy. The latter information sounds less riveting, but it is worth keeping in mind that no studies ever showed reading to have deteriorating effects on anyone’s mental health.  

Bibliotherapy for Children and Adolescents

Another systematic review was conducted by another research team with the intention of capturing the impact of bibliotherapy on children’s mental health. The 8 studies that were included contained a total of nearly 1000 children and adolescents as their participants. Results indicated that bibliotherapy would have a positive influence on the reduction of symptoms of both depression and anxiety. Bibliotherapy was found to be most effective in depressive adolescents but least satisfactory for treating anxiety in children. 

Superheroes Save The Day 

One common feature of superhero stories is the theme of experiencing parental loss at an early age. This led to Nurit Betzalel and Zipora Shechtman analysing the significance of bibliotherapy superheroes pertaining to children and adolescents who had experienced parental absence. They divided the children and adolescents into three experimental condition groups. One group included bibliotherapy with superhero stories, another group included bibliotherapy without superheroes, and then there was a “no-treatment group”. Anxiety, violent behavior, aggression, and their enthusiasm for the future was assessed pre- and post-treatment. So what were the results? 

Well, the strongest desired outcomes were obtained in the group of children who were treated in the superhero treatment condition. In fact, only children in the superhero condition indicated change in future optimism. They fantasised less about home and enhanced their future goals. This suggests that while bibliotherapy might be less helpful for anxiety containment, it can contribute to at least some aspects of well-being among children and adolescents – as well as adults.

We at Daastan promote reading and writing in all age groups. Our growing bookstore provides authentic pakistani literature to give you a fresh reading experience. In case you missed the live session, view it here.

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