British libraries offer full bibliotherapy services, including recommendations and exhaustive reading lists based on condition, to anyone, at every library in the U.K., at no cost.This year, London-based charity The Reading Agency and the Society of Chief Librarians expanded bibliotherapy service to form Reading Well for Young People, an extension of its regular adult program to help teens and children find their way through problems like mental illness, bullying, exam pressure and eating disorders.
Nearly half a million people have used the service since its inception in January 2015, the Reading Agency reports — 90 percent of people who borrowed “prescribed” books based on their conditions said they helped and 85 percent said the books helped their symptoms feel manageable. Experts say books featuring characters or people that share a patient’s struggles can be an incredibly important piece of a larger treatment plan designed to give patients something a pill can’t always offer: Hope
Bibliotherapy likely first came to the U.S. from Britain after World War I. Jane Austen novels helped calm soldiers afflicted with PTSD (then called “shellshock”). Then, as now, the main premise of bibliotherapy is pretty simple: Personal transformation through reading. People potentially stand to learn and be emotionally affected as much by a fictional person or situation.
Librarian and bibliotherapist Sadie Peterson Delaney, prescribed books to recovering African-American veterans at the U.S. Veterans Administration Hospital in 1920s Tuskegee, Alabama. She started small, using fairy tales to help bed-ridden, traumatized veterans make sense of their own emotional struggles and then began a public appeal for book donations for and about black Americans to help her patients, as she put it, “fit themselves for life.”
W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Dark Princess” gave her patients purpose and hope to take with them when they were released back into segregated America.
“Books about the Negro cannot be written fast enough to satisfy the insatiate desire of these veterans,” wrote Delaney, who saw such books as “aiding him in his upward struggle to lay aside prejudice, all sense of defeat, and to take in that which is helpful and inspiring by the means of books.”
Nursing a broken heart? The Medicine is Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. Patients are given a lengthy questionnaire and talk sessions (often via Skype) before being presented with a reading list of six books tailored to their individual needs. This is crucial to avoid making matters worse.