When you’re feeling low, what if the doctor recommended a daily dose of books by authors such as Haruki Murakami, Franz Kafka and Charles Dickens? A workshop conducted in the city last month, titled Restorative Power Of Reading, demonstrated that the concept, known as bibliotherapy, isn’t as outrageous as it sounds. A form of cognitive therapy, bibliotherapy is not only used to lift one’s mood and cure depression, but also aids in the treatment of various mental-health disorders.
Practised around the world by psychologists, social workers, and counsellors, bibliotherapy is largely considered as “reading for therapeutic effect”. According to psychotherapist and counsellor Kunjal Shah, “Bibliotherapy simply means the usage of selected books to guide a person in the area that he or she seeks help in. It’s like having a dialogue with a book — using its concepts as food for thought, trying to slowly apply it in life and checking if it really helps.” From a clinical aspect, a psychotherapist or a bibliotherapist prescribes books to deal with ailments such as anxiety, autism, depression, eating disorders, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), phobias, addiction and other health-related issues. Talking about the healing power of words, literary agent Sherna Khambatta says, “Studies have shown that if you read some text, it remains with you for four days. As you can picture the book, it changes the way your brain is structured and how chemicals are released.”
How it works
While one can look up various curative books on the Internet, those who are ailing are given a prescription specific to their illness in a literary counselling session. “I’ve found books such as The Road Less Travelled by Scott Peck or Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl work for specific cases. The ideas in these books are discussed either by noting one’s thoughts in a diary, through support groups and group therapy, or with a practitioner during individual sessions. Things are taken ahead from there,” explains Shah.
The popularity of self-help books has spiralled through the years. But bibliotherapy is not the same as reading self-help books, points out psychiatrist and cognitive therapist Dr Shefali Batra. “The idea of using fiction to solve health problems is not well-known in India. In such books, patients identify with the characters. I’ve found novels and short stories to be particularly helpful when clients are at a critical juncture in their lives. Perhaps they’re facing retirement or have been laid off from their jobs or are single parents. It is a form of expressive therapy, in which I advise people to read books with the intent to heal,” says Dr Batra.
The efficacy of the therapy, however, varies according to the health problem one is facing. “It is in no way meant to replace medication. Some clients require psychiatric consultations and medicines to help them, while others don’t. I use it in conjunction with individual psychotherapy,” says Shah. Dr Batra, however, feels that “bibliotherapy enhances the effects of medication”.
While the treatment may be effective on the bookish, does it work on those who are averse to reading? “There’s a book for everyone — be it fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels or audiobooks. For example, graphic novels are often used for those suffering from drug addiction and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder),” says Khambatta.
But Dr Batra says it works best on those who have a literary orientation. “Besides the fact that a large part of our population is uneducated, most adults are also defensive. So it is especially effective with children, who are used to learning new concepts through books. The natural curiosity that a young mind possesses makes bibliotherapy easier,” adds Dr Batra.