It’s unlikely you will go to a doctor’s office and come out with a prescription of J.R.R. Tolkien, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help. Storytelling is an art form as old as time. We grow up on stories to learn morals, culture, history, and the human experience. Sometimes they may take place in a fantastical world or have characters living lives extraordinarily different to our own, however that doesn’t mean we can gain some insight into our own lives or mental health.
The term, bibliotherapy, has been around since 1916 and while it has changed and grown over the years it can be described as a process of reading to better understand one’s condition. For example, in both World War I & II, returning soldiers were encouraged to try bibliotherapy to help with physical and emotional concerns. Reading about individuals who faced similar circumstances as them helped their transition back into civilian life.
As a counselor, I have used bibliotherapy in a group setting before. While working with a substance use group, we would weekly read chapters from The Sober Diaries: How one woman stopped drinking and started living by Clare Pooley. The book is an account of a stay-at-home mother’s year long journey into sobriety after concluding her wine consumption was out of hand. Now this group consisted of individuals with addictions other than alcohol, but that didn’t stop them from relating to the shame the character felt about her drinking, the fear of attending social events with alcohol near, or encouragement the author felt when she found small, yet significant benefits of being sober. Pooley’s story opened the conversation to different aspects of addiction and recovery. For some of the people in the group, it gave them better insight into their substance use and made them feel less alone.
Bibliotherapy has the benefit of normalizing mental health issues. Often mental disorders are still seen as “othered” meaning something unknown, to be fearful of, and to not want to associate with. On the contrary, mental health issues are nearly as frequent as physical health issues. Bibliotherapy can help people understand that.
Individuals often use bibliotherapy in two way, either for psychoeducation (meaning to educate themselves on a condition and the techniques to manage it) or for narrative reasons (meaning to relate to a character, setting, or message of the story). Examples of psychoeducation could include reading The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. to learn about the complex nature of trauma. Dr. Van Der Kolk provides a look into the neurological, physical, and emotional aspects of trauma, along with relatable anecdotes. This would be a great recommendation to anyone who has experienced trauma or knows of someone who’s experienced trauma. Or for those who are more visual learners I would possibly recommend Psychiatric Tales by Darryl Cunningham, which is a graphic novel with each chapter describing a different mental illness. While less in-depth than the first book mentioned, Psychiatric Tales does provide a basic understanding of the conditions along with some powerful imagery.
A narrative use of bibliotherapy would include The Sober Diaries mentioned above for someone trying to achieve sobriety or Judith Guest’s book Ordinary People for anyone who has experienced the grief of losing a family member and witnessed how other family members react to that pain. This type of bibliotherapy allows for the reader to gain the perceptive of the main characters and possible insight into their own lives. Even more fantastical fare, like The Hobbit by Mr. Tolkien could be relatable to some people. dealing with. Although Tolkien’s main character, Bilbo, is trying to gain the respect of a party of dwarves and stealing treasure from sleeping dragons, he also struggles with imposter syndrome (doubting your abilities and internalizing a fear of being found out as a fraud), which many of us can relate to.
For whichever reason may appeal to you, add bibliotherapy to your therapeutic tools. It can provide awareness, a psychological catharsis, and personal insight. The more understanding people can gain about mental health, the better for everyone.