As part of my Mental Health Awareness Week posts, I thought I would find out about Bibliotherapy. Readers have many reasons to pick up a book but there is a therapy that uses books as treatment for mental health. I asked Sharon Dunscombe, founder of Tales for Tea, more about this little known treatment.
Bibliotherapy is the ancient Greek practice of healing through reading. I am a Bibliotherapist and I use short stories and poetry to promote and build a strong mental and emotional wellbeing, without worry of stigma or being labelled. I use the characters in a story to create conditions within a group setting where the capacity for empathy, discussion and understanding can flourish and grow, enabling emotions to be brought to the surface that might not be raised otherwise. It allows us to come together to talk at the same table. As a participative therapy, this in turn promotes therapeutic healing.
What are the benefits of bibliotherapy?
To share a book by reading out loud can bring insights not available when we read alone. It’s as if the author is acting as an intermediary, allowing us to broach subjects that there isn’t the time or space or intimacy for in the normal pattern of our lives.
Listening to someone read gives a deep source of comfort. Nourishing and replenishing, there’s a sense - as with a good, home cooked meal - that someone is looking after you and that you can relax into a more passive state. Being removed from the need to take in and translate the marks on the page gives an immense sense of freedom and ease. The mind and imagination move freely and at leisure and the consequence of the story grows deeper and more real.
What kind of issues can bibliotherapy help treat?
I am a passionate believer in the fact that stories and poems have the ability to heal and help holistically address many ailments or issues including alleviating depression, pain, isolation, stress, anxiety and grief. I also know that they can help “make a moment matter” when read to people living with dementia. As Virginia Woolf once said, “Books are the mirrors of the soul.”
What motivated you to become a bibliotherapist?
I have been putting bibliotherapy into practice since 2004, after running reading groups for junior school children as part of my development as a Level 3 NVQ Classroom Assistant.
After studying for a BA (Hons) degree in English Literature, I returned to my interest in bibliotherapy and I applied to train as a Shared Reading Facilitator at Kensington & Chelsea Library.
I am now an independent Bibliotherapist and Founder of Tales for Tea.
I have worked with students and lecturers at Exeter College, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries, Made-Well Community Project, Help for Heroes, Recovery Devon, CRISIS Winter Rough Sleepers and Dementia Pathfinders. I work in retirement villages (St. Monica Trust) and hold sessions at various retreats around the country.
I am a regular speaker at NHS Conferences and Events and I also host a weekly radio show at UK Health Radio, where I present a one-hour bibliotherapy session to a large audience worldwide. I am an Ambassador for the Reading Agency’s World book Night and am part of the BBC’s “Get Creative” Team.
I am also excited to be working with Dr. Surendra Dass, Chairman of the IHF Wellness Orbitarium, Nagpur, who is promoting and supporting Tales for Tea to introduce a programme of bibliotherapy to India.
Is bibliotherapy a long-standing method of therapy or a fairly new treatment?
The word bibliotherapy originates from the Greek words for book ‘biblion’ and healing ‘therapeia.’ An American minister, Samuel Crothers, combined the Greek words in 1916 to describe bibliotherapy as a ‘process in which specific literature, both fiction and non-fiction, was prescribed as medicine for a variety of ailments.’ In the mid-20th century, the use of bibliotherapy began to move away from the hospital environment and into diverse areas of the community including libraries, general medical practice, psychology, criminal justice, nursing, social work, education and occupational therapy.
In today’s society, Bibliotherapy is normally practiced by using self-help books or reading lists. Tales for Tea does neither – I just use stories.Unlike a book club or reading group, where you may feel under pressure to have critical knowledge of the book, Tales for Tea offers you just the stories themselves. I offer you characters, and the stories that they have to tell, as a vessel, like an invisibility cloak, to wrap yourself up, connect and relate to what you might be feeling.
What happens in an average session?
It is my duty as a Bibliotherapist to make personal connections between the content of the books and the people I read to. I normally run a group with six to eight members, which takes approximately two hours. Every member of the group has an opportunity to read out-loud and this is highly encouraged although, most certainly not, insisted upon.
The text rich titles I use as material will include extracts from the classics, modern literature, short stories and poems. These stories will have no relation to the kind of ailment the group members may be experiencing. My sessions are facilitated to take members away from their troubles for the duration, not to focus or highlight them, unless issues are raised specifically by themselves and are drawn from the reading of the text. It aims to enrich life quality and life spirit through looking for the wisdom to be found in writing.
It has three recognized stages: (1) identification, (2) catharsis, and (3) insight..Identification is when a reader associates themselves with the character or situation in the literary work. Catharsis is when the reader shares many of the same thoughts and feelings of the characters in the literary work, and insight is when the reader realizes that they relate to the character or situation and learn to deal more effectively with their own personal issues.
Are all bibliotherapy sessions the same?
No in a word! Every session is different as everybody has different experiences and different connections to the stories and poems. Depending on whether the people attending the sessions are students, veterans, people living with dementia, people with poor mental health, bipolar or people who are lonely or homesick, the sessions flow differently. The same story, read in three different sessions in a day, will all have different outcomes.
Are there any books that are consistently popular in this therapy?
All my short stories and poems work well. I specifically do not have certain stories for certain groups. Novels that have wonderful memories for me when reading with my groups are Wind in The Willows, A Scarlett Letter, Street Cat Bob, short stories by Joanne Harris and many, many more. Luckily, I will never run out of stories!
Is bibliotherapy widely available in the UK?
No it isn’t and I am working hard to change this! I have colleagues at Kirklees Council who run a bibliotherapy group and I know there are other organisations which run Books on Prescription (self-help) and reading groups that focus heavily on the text rather than healing but the kind of bibliotherapy I offer, as far as I know, is possibly only Tales for Tea!
Do you have any long term goals / projects that you hope to achieve as a bibliotherapist?
Yes I do! I am presently working on delivering effective workshops to allow others to experience and develop their skills as bibliotherapists. I am working together with Dementia Pathfinders to roll out a programme for their carers. I also have a trip to India planned, rolling out a programme of bibliotherapy to schools in Nagpur with the IHF Wellness Orbaritum.
My plans include training others, growing my own reading groups across the UK and trying hard to bring the importance of bibliotherapy to the World!
More information about Tales for Tea can be found on her website, and Sharon can be found on Facebook (Tales for Tea), on Twitter (@talesfortea) and LinkedIn (Sharon Dunscombe and Tales for Tea).