A recent article by Dr. Mark Sisson (of “primal diet” fame) has me wondering whether one reason that Americans have so many mental and emotional health issues is that they don’t read enough.
Bibliotherapy is a growing practice among some psychologists, social workers, and counselors in which a patient struggling with depression or some similar problem is given books to read which are later discussed with the professional. Sounds pretty ho-hum, right? I mean, it’s no different from any Great Books course at my university! But the results are surprising. Sisson cites research conducted at the University of Nevada which “suggests that bibliotherapy for depression administered by a family physician may be just as effective as standard anti-depressant prescriptions.”
Well, that’s pretty impressive. Would you rather spend $10-15 and a few hours on a book, or hundreds of dollars on drugs that could produce unwanted side effects?
Imaginative literature produced the most striking effects in this study. Even patients who showed no interest in getting help for their condition profited from reading it. Sisson writes:
Not only does the backdrop of fiction or poetry offer a more nuanced illustration of life experiences, but readers often come to identify with the characters in a deeply resounding way. The emotional experience of following the character’s trials and outcome can crack open readers’ defenses.
It’s nice to know that the shrinks have come to realize what literature teachers have known for a few thousand years. To me, it seems like an intuitive insight: depressed people are often fixated on their own problems, but getting engaged in a story takes you out of yourself and helps you see the world through new eyes. It shows you that the world can be different from the way you’ve been experiencing it.
So next time you’re feeling down, leave the TV off (it will depress you more) and pick up a great work of literature. No existentialists, though. They might just push you over the edge.