Read Your Way to Sanity
As reported in Smithsonian magazine, “Doctors are now prescribing books to patients with depression, hoping that reading will help them find connections.”
Here’s the link, but I’ll hit the high spots for you. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/doctors-are-now-prescribing-books-to-treat-depression-180948211/?no-ist
First, let’s note that this is third-hand information – from the U.K. National Health Service to the Boston Globe to the Smithsonian. (Fourth-hand, if you count this blog.) Many of the details and even the explanation of the concept may have lost quite a bit in the transitions. But here are the basics:
If your primary care physician diagnoses you with “mild to moderate” depression, one of her options is now to scribble a title on a prescription pad. You take the torn-off sheet not to the pharmacy but to your local library, where it can be exchanged for a copy of “Overcoming Depression,” “Mind Over Mood,” or “The Feeling Good Handbook.” And depression is only one of over a dozen conditions treated.
There are also books prescribed for other conditions including, I presume, bipolar disorder. And they sound a lot the old self-help books of the sorts we read in the 1970s, of the Women Who Are Ambivalent About Women Against Women Against Feminism sort (h/t The Bloggess for that awesome title).
Back then I was diagnosed with depression, and back then the Common Wisdom said, “Depression is anger turned inward.” Now that we know more about brain biochemistry, neurotransmitters, and such, advice from a book called “Mind Over Mood” is not likely to be all that much help. And God spare me from anything called “The Feeling Good Handbook.”
Of course the Brits’ prescriptions are not actual bibliotherapy, which is a real thing, defined by The American Library Association thusly:
The use of books selected on the basis of content in a planned reading program designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance. Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader’s own experience. Assistance of a trained psychotherapist is advised.
This is a much better idea, but again, it’s advisable to check the publication dates on those books. The extremely popular book I Never Promised You a Rose Garden was written before anyone really knew about the genetic and biological components of schizophrenia.
I’m sure there is modern fiction that would be useful in bibliotherapy. Personally, I think that the Dementors in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books provide as good a description of depression as I’ve ever heard:
[T]hey glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. … You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.
Rowling herself has spoken about the connection:
It was entirely conscious. And entirely from my own experience. Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It’s a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different. I think [dementors] are the scariest things I’ve written.
As for me, I find insight into mental disorders primarily in nonfiction – though not necessarily in books with a psychiatric or psychological perspective. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon is, I think, essential for any collection. It combines the author’s own experiences with historical, cultural, philosophical, and other ways people have thought and written about depression.
Generally, though, I prefer memoirs of people who have lived through or with the conditions they write about. Although my diagnosis is bipolar disorder type II, I also read memoirs about people with other conditions. There are many similarities of experiences, symptoms, feelings, and other aspects that I find familiar or helpful.
Being an ardent bibliophile as well as a psychiatric patient, I believe in the potential of bibliotherapy. Being a former consumer of self-help books, I sincerely doubt that genre will do much good.