Take two chapters, daily – how to prescribe fiction

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he news that GPs are offering books by the likes of Mark Haddon on prescription to young people with mental health issues is no surprise to us. We have been recommending – or “prescribing” – books as “cures” for common ailments from depression to heartbreak since 2008, when we started our bibliotherapy service. Our medicine draws not on pharmaceuticals, but on 2,000 years of great literature.

The concept of bibliotherapy is not new. Plato said that the arts are “not for mindless pleasure”, but an “aid to bringing our soul-circuit, when it has got out of tune, into order and harmony with itself”. Our practice focuses on great works of fiction that effect a sea-change in the mind of the reader. We use writers from Apuleius to Austen – by way of Haddon, Ali Smith and Meg Rosoff – to help people put their lives into perspective, to distract, soothe and rally. Sometimes, it’s the story that offers solace – a sense that we are not alone; sometimes, the rhythm of the prose. Recent studies have shown that reading a book can be more effective for reducing blood pressure than going for a walk or stroking the dog. Try reading Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet when your mind is too agitated to sleep, and you’ll see what we mean. Or, conversely, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain when you’re in an energy slump – it’s better than caffeine. Fiction has also been shown to help us to relate to and understand others.

Read more from the Guardian here.

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