Bibliotherapy: or, Books–They’re Good For What Ails You

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.

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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8 Responses to Bibliotherapy: or, Books–They’re Good For What Ails You

  1. Victoria says:

    I first ran into the term ‘bibliotherapy’ in Christopher Morley’s ‘The Haunted Bookshop’ (1919) and was delighted with it. It’s been one of the goals of my book group: to keep us all sane thru raising kids/homeschooling/life …
    I’m struggling to get back on track after taking 2 wks off while my husband had, and recovered from, a heart attack. Our [large] family motto is: All fun, all the time! It’s certainly always interesting!
    I hadn’t realized that you, Dr. J, were in Alabama. One of my sons is doing his PhD work at the Mises Institute. Small world.

    • Dr. J says:

      I’m about an hour away from the Mises Institute and usually get over there a few times a year for various events. I may have met your son . . . what is his name?

  2. Marjolein Langadinos says:

    Reading this I would like to let you knowthat when we started our book club in 200 we needed a name. And after some discussion we came upm with the name Bibliotherapy. Our book club has been going now for almost 12 years and we thoroughly enjoy our get-togethers and the books we read. It is therapy. – Marjolein

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