Bibliotherapy: Do You Really Need a Doctor or Government to Tell You to Read?
In an article that notes there are over 100,000 self-help books (I think the actual number is much larger, since Amazon lists over 285,000 in-print self-help books), apparently Leah Price is enamored at the thought of a doctor “prescribing” reading. And a government agency — the UK’s National Health Service — endorsing the idea.
The idea of a “prescription” for a book is as ridiculous as the idea that you need to be told to shower regularly to remove the stink. Reading to understand something better is a basic skill nearly everyone should have learned in grade school.
That’s patient paternalism x2: that only a doctor could be knowledgeable enough to recommend a good self-help book and that the government needs to legitimize this practice.
“Bibliotherapy” is the technical term for reading a book and gaining something beneficial from it on a health or mental health level. It’s a self-help method that’s been around for many, many decades. Contrary to Price’s suggestion, it’s not new. The first research study conducted on bibliotherapy was in 1937 by Elizabeth Pomeroy who examined 1,500 patients in 62 Veterans Administration hospitals. There’s a large and rich research base of hundreds of studies demonstrating its effectiveness. Reading works.
But even the Books on Prescription program in the UK is hardly new or newsworthy — it’s been around for years (McCulliss, 2012):
The first reports on the prescribed use and benefit of bibliotherapy using self-help books as an adjunct to therapy appeared in 1988 (Starker, 1988). In the UK, self-help bibliotherapy programs operate under the banner of “Books on Prescription.” Operated through the local library, self-help books recommended by a mental health professional are loaned to patients. Worldwide, individuals seeking self-realization also have sought the help of these books. As a result, self-help literature is a multimillion dollar industry
and a 2008 UK Guardian article extolls it virtues as well:
Bibliotherapy, as it’s called, is a fast-growing profession. A recent survey suggests that “over half of English library authorities are operating some form of bibliotherapy intervention, based on the books-on-prescription model”. That’s to say, an increasing number of people are being referred by their GPs to the local library, where they’ll find shelves or “reading pharmacies” set aside for literature deemed relevant to their condition.
So, yeah, it’s not new. But here’s the problem… Given that bibliotherapy has been around for decades, what difference does it matter who “prescribes” a book or not to help with a given issue? Why, in fact, does a book — freely available for anyone to borrow or buy, and read — need to be prescribed at all??
There’s scant research to say, “These 10 self-help books work wonders, and these other 10,000 self-help books are rubbish.” What you’re getting with this UK scheme is simply a bunch of “expert” recommendations — with no data to back them up.
With hundreds of thousands of self-help books available for purchase, I have no doubt that books of this nature can help a person with their concern. It’s something self-help mental health advocates have been saying for more than three decades.1
Self-Help Books Are a Great, Valuable Resource
So yes, I think self-help books are a great alternative form of treatment that most people could probably enjoy some benefits from. But since bibliotherapy has been around for nearly a century, it’s hard to argue that it, alone, will be an effective treatment modality for everyone who tries it.
If self-help books produced significant results, however, I suspect most therapists would be out of business. They are good for folks (a) who benefit from reading and can put what they read into actual practice in their life (which is often more difficult than it sounds) and (b) whose concerns are in the mild-to-moderate category of difficulty.
It’s also an excellent way to start your treatment regimen, so you have a good leg-up on what to expect form treatment. Let’s say you think you have anxiety or depression. You could go to your local library and borrow a copy of a good anxiety or depression self-help book (or buy one from your local bookstore or Amazon.com if you prefer), and read the book to better understand your ailment. That way a therapist or doctor doesn’t have to spend a lot of time on the basics of the disorder or concern.
You can also learn a lot of great techniques to try out in your life to help reduce the symptoms of your concern. Self-help books are chock full of such advice and exercises to try out.
But I don’t want a doctor to write a “prescription” for a book. I want to get my book recommendations from those who’ve actually experienced the disorder and found what has helped them. That’s likely to be much more valuable than an “expert” who clinically examines a self-help book and decides its merits.
There are dozens of recommended reading lists online for any disorder. I suggest if you’re interested in this topic, you start there.
McCulliss, D. (2012). Bibliotherapy: Historical and research perspectives. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 25, 23-38.
The Guardian’s 2008 article: The Reading Cure by Blake Morrison
Leah Price’s article: When doctors prescribe books to heal the mind (unfortunately, only available to subscribers)
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Grohol, J. (2018). Bibliotherapy: Do You Really Need a Doctor or Government to Tell You to Read?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/bibliotherapy-do-you-really-need-a-doctor-or-government-to-tell-you-to-read/