Reading: Better than Prozac

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Nate Bolt

Are books good for you? In a recent Boston Globe article, Leah Price examined a British program aimed at helping people read their way to psychological health.

My feeling was that if you could read your way to mental health, that would be great news. Because usually when I read about non-pharmacological psych treatments, they all involve running miles every week, which would depress the hell out of me if I had to do that.

So I’ve always felt extremely lucky that my psychological health is usually okay. Reasonably often I’m relatively happy. I tilt either way on that scale on occasion. I know what it means to be in the dumps sometimes, and I know that when I am, there’s nothing I like better than to lie on the sofa with a cup of tea and a great book. So when I saw this article, I thought, yes.

A little bit about depression: Price says that more than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression; fewer than half receive treatment of any kind; and even fewer have access to psychotherapy. Antidepressants are the most prescribed type of drug in the United States, and in the United Kingdom, one in six adults has taken them.

Britain’s National Health Service launched the reading program based on a psychiatrist’s observation that sometimes reading self-help books actually helps patients improve. In this program, books are “prescribed.” The doctor diagnoses you with a condition, and you take the “prescription” to the library for specific books on managing depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, fear, worry, or over-eating.

I was thinking more along the lines of Pride and Prejudice, but whatever.

The NHS program is an example of “bibliotherapy,” which is enjoying a boom in Britain these days, evidently. In London, nonprofits and at least one for-profit recommend books (self-help, fiction, and poetry) that will fit your taste and cheer you up, sometimes in groups. I’ve always relied on my local librarian for recommendations, but whatever works.

Price’s article ultimately asks questions about society’s values when reading is asked to take the place of medicine. I’ll let you read the article for that and more. Rest assured, I was really happy to find out that if I’m depressed, it’s sound medical advice to lie on the sofa and read Pride and Prejudice. Maybe in a group.

Plus, it’s a lot more fun than running.

2 responses »

    • I didn’t quote very much of the article, which makes the point—at least with the NHS program—that they’re trying to reach people who are waiting for mental health services, in the theory that reading self-help books is better than doing nothing if a person needs treatment. But for the blues and the blahs—it’s fiction all the way for me.

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