“The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own.”
By Dimitra Didangelou, Psychologist, Author, MSc, Specialized in Therapeutic Writing
When we read a book, we enter its world, we identify with the heroes and their experiences, we travel with them and it makes us think more. The journey of reading is not only spiritual but mental as well and it can lead us to a healing and internally purifying process. This exactly is the basis of “bibliotherapy”.
At some point, we have all felt the relieving properties of reading the right book at the right time and this seems to have been discovered very early in ancient Greece. After all, the term “bibliotherapy” originates from the Greek words “book” and “therapy” (Suvilehto, 2019).
What exactly is this method? “Bibliotherapy uses literature to bring about a therapeutic interaction between the participant and facilitator. In interactive bibliotherapy, a trained facilitator uses guided discussion to help the clinical or developmental participant(s) integrate both feelings and cognitive responses to a selected work of literature, which may be a printed text, some form of audiovisual material, or creative writing by the participant.”(Hynes-Berry & McCarthy-Hynes,1994, p. 10).
Bibliotherapy has been an official term since 1916 in the American magazine Atlantic Monthly (Pehrsson & McMillen, 2007), and started becoming a popular method during World War I in Britain and the United States, where the treatment of hospitalized patients and soldiers who suffered from post-traumatic stress often included reading literary books (Shechtman, 2009, p. 21).
Sigmund and Anna Freud used literature in their psychoanalytic approach (Pehrsson & McMillen, 2007). In the 1940s, teacher-led bibliotherapy groups were very popular in schools (Peryon, 1982). This was the developmental bibliotherapy and was used by the teachers, the librarians and the health care providers in order to facilitate the changes that occurred in the lives of healthy people mostly (Rubin, 1978). The clinical bibliotherapy was used by mental health professionals aiming at healing emotional and behavioral issues.
The use of bibliotherapy can be applied to both individuals and groups for many psychological issues, such as traumatic experiences, behavioral problems, abuse, addictions, chronic diseases, self-destructive behaviors, stress, etc. Also, it can be applied to marginalized groups, vulnerable populations or people experiencing crises and difficult life situations (mourning, loss, divorce, unemployment, immigration, etc.).
Some of the benefits of using books for therapeutic reasons are that individuals may become more social, increase their self-awareness and develop compassion and empathy. It is a process in which negative emotions are replaced by positive ones while new functional behaviors and less painful symptoms are developed (Pehrsson & McMillen, 2005, 2007).
At this point, it is important to emphasize that simply reading is not enough to benefit from the use of books. In order to create an effective method, some conditions need to be met, such as the development of a good relationship between the facilitator and the participant. Also, the participant should be open to the process, to be acquainted with literary writing and have a deep perception of the meanings of the text.
Usually, bibliotherapy is included as a tool in a wider treatment plan (Pehrsson & McMillen, 2007) and the process must go through some stages in order to obtain results. Caroline Shrodes (1950) has created one of the most successful models which is based on psychodynamic approaches and includes three stages: identification, catharsis and insight/mindfulness.
“There is a variation in the way the recognition comes. At times, it is immediate. In other cases, the literature itself does not directly spark a catalytic response. The facilitator may have to probe a bit before any recognition takes place. Or the remarks of other members in a group may stir a response. However, even when the response comes through the dialogue, it is still the literature that initiated the discussion and thus can be considered a catalyst.”(Hynes-Berry & McCarthy-Hynes,1994, p.34).
Dr. Altunbay (2018) has noted that bibliotherapy is about finding the right books at the right time. However, not all books can be used for bibliotherapy. It is very important to be a realistic dimension in the books and reflect the issues that concern the person who follows bibliotherapy (Altunbay, 2018). The books that are used are fiction, non-fiction or literary. In some cases self-help books are used, but not all of them are suitable. In order to be effective, some specific quality standards need to be met.
Dr. Müzeyyen Altunbay (2018) from Giresun University in Turkey suggests the use of biographies in bibliotherapy, given the fact that biographies are authentic and can serve as a positive role model. This happens because they present not only the successes of the person whose biography is being written but also their entire journey to exceptional achievements. This includes virtues such as patience and perseverance, determination and not giving up on the difficulties of life. Moreover, factors that cover all stages of development and areas throughout life are presented in detail: from childhood and youth to academic and professional life, personal life, difficulties, successes, personality, habits, character, etc. The people who read biographies can see positive results, such as more encouragement and increased motivation and self-confidence.
In the Hand in Hand project, Dr. Pirjo Suvilehto (2019) from the University of Oulou, Finland, applies developmental bibliotherapy to children in order to strengthen their self-knowledge, increase their joy and their faith to the future.
For the same reason, fairy tales are used in bibliotherapy. The use of fantasy literature can offer the child a safe way to experience new thoughts, attitudes and feelings. Fairy tales can also be used in all age groups, allowing people to get from each story what they need. They offer a way to use imagination in order to deal with their problems and find a deeper meaning in life and difficulties (Afolayan, 1992).
Nevertheless, bibliotherapy has some limitations and should not be considered as a cure for all kinds of emotional problems (Afolayan, 1992). According to Edwards and Simpson (1986), it is not suitable for serious emotional disorders and in such conditions parents and teachers should seek professional help. In addition, it has been reported that in some cases if people read about problems similar to theirs, that could possibly make these problems worse (Afolayan, 1992).
According to the above, when books are used as part of a broader treatment plan and under certain conditions, they can become a very useful tool that will help the participants to feel relieved of the problems that concern them. This way, the psychotherapists may have at their disposal a very good method that will give boost to individual and group sessions. Furthermore, the participants will gain a very good friend for the rest of their lives!
Afolayan, J. A. (1992). Documentary perspective of bibliotherapy in education. Reading Horizons, 33(2), 137-148.
Altunbay, M. (2018). Using Literature in Bibliotheraphy: Biography Sampling. Journal of Education and Training Studies. 6. 201. 10.11114/jets.v6i11.3593.
Edwards, P., Simpson, L. (1986). Bibliotherapy: A strategy for communication between parents and their children. Journal of Reading, 30, 110-118.
Hynes-Berry, M., McCarthy-Hynes, A. (1994). Biblio/poetry therapy—the interactive process: A handbook. St. Cloud: North Star Press.
Pehrsson, D. E., McMillen, P. (2005). A Bibliotherapy Evaluation Tool: Grounding counselors in the therapeutic use of literature. Arts in Psychotherapy, 32(1), 47-59.
Pehrsson, D., McMillen, P. S. (2007). Bibliotherapy: Overview and implications for counselors. Professional Couseling Digest 2. https://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/lib_articles/27
Rubin, R. J. (1978). Using bibliotherapy: A guide to theory and practice. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.
Shechtman, Z. (2009). Treating Child and Adolescent Aggression Through Bibliotherapy. Ch. 2. 10.1007/978-0-387-09745-9.
Suvilehto. P. (2019). We Need Stories and Bibliotherapy Offers One Solution to Developmental Issues. Online Journal of Complementary & Alternative Medicine. 1(5): 10.33552/OJCAM.2019.01.000523.