Books have many positive impacts on the minds of their readers. Teaching new skills, transporting them to different worlds, even providing therapists with a useful tool to use with patients. Bibliotherapy, also known as book therapy or therapeutic storytelling, uses literature as an approach to mental health treatment. It is a creative practice being used by mental health practitioners to address emotional-behavioral problems and reach therapeutic goals. Any type of genre can be used in bibliotherapy from self-help to philosophy, but the most common is fiction. These are innovative techniques for addressing issues with self-esteem, making sense of feelings and experiences, and creating self-awareness.
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How Bibliotherapy Works
Bibliotherapy is a strategy that many therapists use. Patients of all backgrounds are given book recommendations depending on their situation and therapeutic goals. For example, a therapist who is treating a patient with past traumas may suggest books featuring characters that have experienced similar traumas. This gives the patient something to connect with, evaluate, and grow from.
The therapist will recommend books during the session and patients are expected to read them between visits. At their regular meeting intervals, the patient and the therapist will discuss the book together and use any observations and takeaways as a lead into the patient’s personal history. This allows patients to feel more open in discussing their backgrounds and find coping mechanisms to address their needs.
Because reading has been proven to have an overall positive effect on mental health in general, bibliotherapy is thought to be an effective way to help patients relax while also confronting their concerns. Books have been described as an escape by some. Using books as a therapy tool gives patients a new outlet to work through their challenges and helps them recognize that others have experienced similar events and feelings.
In addition, books are much easier to discuss than personal experiences because fictional characters or strangers are easier to talk about. Introducing conversations through another lens can give therapy patients the push they need to speak up about their worries and stressors. In therapeutic settings, this can lead to breakthroughs.
There are a few ways that this can take form in a therapeutic setting:
Prescriptive bibliotherapy- This involves using specific materials or workbooks to target mental health concerns. This is also known as self-help and can be done with or without the help of a therapist.
Books on Prescription- This is a program created by mental health professionals that involves prescribing specific readings to address mental health concerns. Books used can be sourced from places like the Bibliotherapy Education Project which recommends appropriate titles for various topics like divorce, grief, or children and teen concerns. Many libraries in the country have a set of these books on-hand for public use.
Creative bibliotherapy- This uses imaginative fiction literature to improve the psychological well-being of patients. These books are selected by mental health professionals and are used to guide patients through a journey of discovery. These usually take place in group settings and involve stories, poems, and fiction.
Developmental bibliotherapy- This is an approach used in educational settings by parents, teachers, doctors, or counselors to help walk children through complex or confusing topics. These can cover topics like puberty or grief.
Bibliotherapy techniques can be used for people dealing with all types of challenges such as PTSD and grief and are easy to recommend and implement. In places all over the world, bibliotherapy is used for those who do not need immediate help and find themselves on therapy waiting lists. This gives them a way to tackle their concerns in an independent setting.
Reading is a beneficial habit to have in general, but many health professionals find that it is great for addressing anger problems, shyness, or anxiety. It helps teach social responses and can teach patients how to handle rejection or address racism, ageism, and sexism. Targeted bibliotherapy has also been used specifically for illnesses such as eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, or existential concerns.
There are a host of positive effects on mental health that reading can have. These include feeling relaxed, reducing stress, improving brain function, and increasing knowledge. Reading for therapeutic purposes comes with its own set of benefits.
Patients gain insight into their challenges and find ways to develop strategies for facing them. This is the main reason why therapists will recommend books where the main character is dealing with the same concerns as their patient. This outlet gives patients a way to see how others handle similar crises.
Having assigned readings is a great way to work on treatment outside of therapy sessions. Leaving with “homework” each session gives patients something to focus on and brings new perspectives to each meeting. This can also deepen the meaning of each discussion with therapists and help patients get more out of their time together.
Finally, bibliotherapy is a great way to help patients gain perspective by showing them that their concerns and challenges can be overcome. When fictional characters are grappling with similar personal struggles, it gives patients another experience to learn from. When patients can identify with a character, they can see that others are also navigating similar situations.
There’s much to cover when it comes to bibliotherapy. Who makes a good candidate? What to should a client look for in a good bibliotherapist? There is a directory of providers on the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy’s website that may prove to be a good starting place for those wishing to explore further. In addition, looking for someone with a PsyD, Ph.D., LPC, or other related degrees is also a good sign that the individual has experience working with mental health patients. There are specific credentials to search for such as Certified Applied Poetry Facilitator (CAPF), Certified Poetry Therapist (CPT), or Registered Poetry Therapist (PTR) that can indicate whether someone has the experience to lead patients through bibliotherapy.
For many, bibliotherapy has become a productive activity that impacts their mental health journey in many ways. Everyone is looking to get something different out of their sessions from increasing empathy to resolving past trauma. Bibliotherapy is a cost-effective and useful treatment for addressing several mental health concerns and has made an impact on patients everywhere.