In February, the Healthwatch Essex Research Team attended a Love Your Library Day at Chelmsford Library. The theme for the event was ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing’. In this Research Reflections blog, our Research Manager Dr Kate Mahoney draws on her own experiences to consider how reading can support our health and wellbeing, before enlisting the support of our colleagues to compile a Healthwatch Essex reading list.
Essex Libraries offer a range of services designed to support people’s health. Their Reading Well booklists, for example, contain publications selected by health care professionals and people with lived experience, dedicated to topics including mental health, young people, and children (ExploreEssex, 2022). The idea that reading is beneficial for our health has been around for a long time. Ancient Greek and Egyptian societies regarded libraries as sacred spaces that fostered healing properties (Psychology Today, 2022). The practice of ‘bibliotherapy’ – the use of books to support an individual’s mental health – emerged in medical literature in 1930s America (Psychology Today, 2022; NAPC, 2017). When the Second World War ended in 1945, reading was promoted amongst injured soldiers to boost their morale during recovery (NACP, 2017: 4).
Reading has since been prescribed by health care practitioners in the UK. In 2003, Cardiff-based clinical psychologist Professor Neil Frude set up a Books on Prescription scheme, which aimed to help people experiencing mental health problems to ‘understand, manage and treat their condition through the use of high-quality self-help books’ (Frude, 2019). The scheme was quickly adopted in Wales, and a similar initiative was established in England in 2013. This scheme, called Reading Well: Books on Prescription, has developed reading lists of evidence-based self-help books for adults and young people living with mental health conditions, and individuals diagnosed with dementia. Library staff have also been encouraged to recommend health-related books to visitors as part of a social prescribing offer (The Reading Agency, undated). Tailored reading lists help people to understand a diagnosis, live with a specific condition, and understand the kinds of support and treatments that might be available to them. By gaining more information about their health and wellbeing, people can be empowered to seek out the support that they feel works best for them and better advocate for themselves when using services.
After reflecting on my own experiences and those of my colleagues, however, it has become apparent that the books that have helped us through difficult times are not necessarily those focused on the specific conditions or concerns that we were contending with. A few years ago, my mum was diagnosed with a brain tumour and had to undergo surgery and intensive radiotherapy. For nearly a year, her prognosis was uncertain. I was living with my parents at the time and trying to finish my PhD. Whilst I took care of my mum as best I could, I was wary of engaging with literature focused on brain tumours. I kept telling myself that it was best to hold on the information that we’d been given by my mum’s consultant and avoided Googling her condition. I was afraid that reading around the subject would lead to negative speculation about her prognosis. This was too difficult to comprehend.
My dad had recently started to make his way through Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus detective series. I started reading them and couldn’t put them down. When I think back to that time, they’re the only books that I can remember reading. There was something reassuring about the way they were structured. Each book began with a crime that needed to be solved. As the story progressed, the initial confusions, blind spots, and dead ends were gradually resolved, resulting in the perpetrator being caught. Any ambiguities at the beginning of the book were tied up into a neat solution by the end. It was comforting to engage with this kind of story again and again. The books offered reassurance that there would come a point when the chaos and uncertainty within my family would be resolved.
After reflecting on my own experiences, I asked my colleagues at Healthwatch Essex to share the books that mean a lot to them or have helped them through a difficult time. As you can see in the reading list below, they selected a wide range of fiction and non-fiction titles that provided comfort and support for a variety of reasons. Some colleagues chose books that affirmed their sense of the world around them or helped them to understand the experiences of others. Other books were significant based on who had gifted them, or the life event during which they were read. Therefore, while it is valuable to socially prescribe clinically evidenced self-help books, there remains scope to further consider how fictional and non-fictional stories that are not health-related support our wellbeing; helping us to comprehend who we are and how we feel during times of need.
A Healthwatch Essex reading list:
- Dolly Alderton, Everything I Know About Love (2018):
‘This book means a lot to me because it made me reflect on the ways my friendships have shaped me and how much all relationships with people in your life matter – it was also lent to me by a friend I’ve had for years which was very symbolic of the themes!’
- Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography (2009):
‘I love this book. He talks very openly about his pushy, demanding father, the never-ending slog and commitment to rise through the ranks, his actual hatred of tennis, and even being open about wearing a long wig (even while competing) to hide his hair loss. It’s a great example of how inner feelings and worries can be so different from external persona, how outside expectations can have such an impact, and how you can love and loath and make good and bad decisions all at the same time. It’s also just a really good read!’
- Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003):
‘This book got me through Covid when I was finding it the most overwhelming. It also made me realise we all have a purpose on Earth. This was the book that got me back into reading’.
- Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie (1997):
‘This book helped me to appreciate what really mattered in life and brought piece in a time I struggled with health issues and mortality’.
‘It’s just one of those books that makes you sit and think about life, love and well everything. I often give the book out as a gift to people as its just one of those books that has a beautiful story and meaning’.
- David Almond, Skellig (1998):
‘I read this when I was about 9 and it was the first book that made me realise that stories can make you cry. It’s a beautiful portrayal of how support can from forms you least expect in times of need’.
- Sharon Creech, Walk Two Moons (1994):
‘I first read this book as a teenager and have read it so many times since. Its witty and charming and sad in a bittersweet way. Reading also reminds me of a place and time and how I always found comfort in it’.
- Martin Fletcher, Silver Linings: Travels Around Northern Ireland (2001):
‘At a time when Northern Ireland was only synonymous with The Troubles, Martin Fletcher wrote a book about his travels across the country which I think comes closer to the telling the true story of where I’m from. Now, people don’t think twice about a quick hop to Belfast but back then it was treated like a war zone which was too dangerous for many people to even contemplate visiting. It was nice to read the alternative story!’
- Mark Haddon, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (2003):
‘It gave really interesting insight into the mind of someone living with autism. There were so many things in it that made me stop and think about what that experience must be like and how those who are neurotypical have no idea of some of the challenges facing people around us on a day-to-day basis.
- Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007):
‘I fell in love with the character of Maryam. This book highlights the power of female friendships and human resilience’.
- Adam Kay, This is Going to Hurt (2017):
‘This book made me laugh so much and really helped to restore some faith in the NHS and why people do the job they do to hopefully make a difference.’
- Nancy Kline, Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind (2002):
‘This is one of my favourite books. It’s all about asking the right question and allowing someone time to really think about their answers and create time and space for thinking’.
- H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913):
‘I first encountered this many years ago as part of my English Literature A-Level and was completely overwhelmed by it. I find the insight into the characters and their thought processes very powerful, almost painfully so, and the continuing theme of violence in the family home and how it permeates the different family dynamics really resonates. I love the collision of gritty earthiness and ethereal spirituality and never go more than a year without re-reading it. It’s like a tonic for my soul’.
- Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse (2019):
‘It was bought for my wife by a friend a few years ago. It’s a series of sketches and brief conversations between the 4 of them who first meet while just meandering through life.
It’s about friendship, understanding, kindness and reflection. My favourite is the sketch when the mole asks the boy “What do you want to be when you grow up” and the boy replies “Kind”’.
- Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper (2004):
‘This will always remind me of being in New Zealand, this was the first book I had read that made me cry really hard! I remember reading it by the fireplace at the hostel I was living in at the time and my friend kept asking me if I was ok as I had tears streaming down my face, but I couldn’t tell her why in case she wanted to read it!’
- Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites (1987):
‘I first read this book when I was 16 and fell in love with Terry Pratchett. From there on in, it started my lifelong love for his work and humour’.
- Johanna Spyri, Heidi (1880-1881):
‘One of my favourite childhood books. It always makes me feel happy whenever I think about the story. I still want to live on a mountain, eat bread and cheese and look after a herd of goats!’
ExploreEssex (2022), Read Well. Essex Explorer Magazine, Autumn/Winter. Available at https://issuu.com/exploreessex/docs/sc-3192-ee_magazine_winter-singles-e7-300dpi-final/s/17064538
Frude, N. (2019), Mental health bibliotherapy comes home to Wales. Reading Well. Available at https://reading-well.org.uk/news/reading-well-in-wales-mental-health-bibliotherapy-is-coming-home
Psychology Today (2022), Bibliotherapy. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/bibliotherapy
National Association of Primary Care (2017), Reading Well Books on Prescription: How bibliotherapy can help your patients and save your practice time and money. Available at https://napc.co.uk/news-and-publications/publications/
Reading Agency, The (undated), Social Prescribing Toolkit. Available at https://tra-resources.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/entries/document/4984/Social_Prescribing_Toolkit.pdf.
Dr Kate Mahoney