WHEN I was a teenager and suffering the kind of stomach cramps that had me doubled up in agony in the early hours of the morning, I would frequently seek solace in a book. I say that as if my reading was unusual for me.
In fact, I spent most of my waking hours with my head buried in the pages of one novel or another. Studious and socially insecure, I found interior worlds easier to navigate than exterior ones. But when I was in pain, I would choose a certain kind of book, an old favourite from my childhood – Little Women, Flambards or Rilla Of Ingleside – well-thumbed tomes that I could slip into as easily as a pair of old shoes. Later in life, when feeling a bit down, I’d pick one with a character triumphing over, or at least surviving, adversity. Not an uplifting, laugh-out-loud book necessarily, but one which offered catharsis, or, if I was wallowing in self-pity, one which put my own petty travails into perspective.
I have never suffered from protracted depression, but it doesn’t surprise me that doctors are beginning to recognise the therapeutic benefits of books for those who do. In recent years, book groups for those with mild to moderate mental health issues have been springing up. It’s not just that meeting and talking helps people overcome their isolation. A sewing bee, after all, would achieve that. No, there seems to be something curative about the process of reading itself. There’s the obvious release of being able to escape into a different world. But there’s also the fact that taboo subjects – rejection, loss, ageing – can be confronted head-on. And engaging with fictional characters allows one to externalise, and so process, one’s own emotions.
Last week, GPs teamed up with the Society of Chief Librarians to launch a new initiative called Books on Prescription, which starts in May and aims to encourage patients suffering stress, anxiety or mild to moderate depression to try reading as opposed to drugs as their first-line treatment. With this in mind the Reading Agency charity has come up with a list of 30 self-help books – such as Overcoming Relationship Problems and How To Stop Worrying – which will be recommended by doctors and available at local libraries. A second list of mood-boosting books including Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie – has also been drawn up.
Considering one in seven Scots is now on anti-depressants, this seems an eminently sensible approach to take north and south of the Border. Even if the side-effects of the drugs weren’t a concern, even if we weren’t preoccupied with the over-medicalisation of society, there’s the issue of the cost – £31.3 million last year in this country alone. Cognitive behavioural therapy, which works well for mild to moderately depressed people, is labour-intensive and expensive.
Already available at some venues in Scotland, GPs have been careful not to present bibliotherapy as a panacea. Those who are seriously depressed often lack the concentration to complete a 300-page novel. But it will be used as a starting point, an option for those experiencing mental health problems to try out, particularly in the early weeks while their condition is being fully assessed. The initiative has proved popular in other countries where it has been tried. In Wales, Denmark and New Zealand, experts say, results have been encouraging. My only reservation is that drawing up a list of “approved texts” might be overly prescriptive. With tens of thousands of self-help books available online, I accept a degree of quality control may be required. The 30 books chosen have all been scrutinised by experts and cover the gamut of people’s likely mental health problems from anorexia to anger management.
But when it comes to fiction, is a list of approved texts really necessary? After all, our tastes differ. Some people may indeed find their morale boosted by quirky little observations about Britain, but I think I can safely say that, if I ever do suffer a breakdown, my recovery will not be aided by dipping into Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island, recommended to combat depression. Indeed, it seems to me the resolute cheeriness of some of the anointed books is less like therapy and more akin to being visited by an upbeat aunt who thinks your problems might be solved by some a few light-hearted anecdotes and a rousing chorus of Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.
Nor is avoiding the difficult subjects always the answer. Recently, I read the story of a man whose mental turmoil was eased by Saul Bellow’s Herzog, the opening line of which reads: “‘If I am out of my mind, it is all right with me,’ thought Moses Herzog.” In the same way, I guess, reading Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing or Marie Cardinal’s The Words To Say It, which chart two women’s journeys from mental collapse back to some kind of equilibrium, might be fortifying.
I did also wonder if too much reading might provide an excuse for opting out of real life. It’s great if people are out discussing literature in libraries or book groups, but exercise, which releases endorphins in your brain, is also a mood-enhancer. If reading means crawling under a duvet with a copy of The Edge Of Reason and not emerging for three days, then it may not be the best way to tackle your malaise.
But there are so many precedents for book therapy in history – most notably John Stuart Mill, who, having suffered a breakdown, found comfort in Wordsworth’s epic The Prelude – it’s impossible not to be convinced. Indeed, given the advantages, it’s surprising even more health bodies aren’t opting for Proust over Prozac. Reading is cheap, it’s safe and, best of all, you can go on deriving pleasure from it long after you’re fully recovered. «