Bibliotherapy: The Power of Healing Through Literature
By Sijé Vargas
reviewed by juliana ascolani
I decided to study literature at university because, as a child, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything but reading for the rest of my life. When I made this decision, I didn’t know about all the benefits that reading had to offer. I discovered its real power when I emigrated to Europe; after months of being lost and feeling alone. I decided to read again, and as soon as I opened the first page of Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas, I found myself in love with literature again.
I finished Before Night Falls in three days, then I started reading feminist texts, followed by healing poems by Rupi Kaur, and before I understood what was happening, I was in therapy, with literature as my therapist.
Around this time, I also discovered that I had been subjected to many micro-aggressions that I had normalized and that those situations were limiting me in different ways. I realized I couldn’t move on from them, and this was when I decided to go to therapy in earnest.
The idea of going to therapy didn’t occur to me immediately, but as I researched my favorite authors and their lives, I realized they had gone to therapy too, and that what I was reading resulted from what they had learned in conversations with professionals.
I later discovered that what I was doing was a form of bibliotherapy. I now want to share with you my connection with literature and its benefits.
What is bibliotherapy?
Bibliotherapy is an artistic and therapeutic form of healing. Through different forms of literature: poetry, short stories, novels, plays, self-help texts, autobiographies, and essays, you can gain a deeper understanding of your feelings and your body. The American Psychological Association defines bibliotherapy as “a form of therapy that uses structured reading material”.
Words reveal their power by demonstrating the possibility of healing through the understanding of nonfiction and fiction. Since bibliotherapy is a form of guided self-help, according to a 2017 study, bibliotherapy can treat mild- to- moderate depression.
Psychotherapist Arleen McCarty Hynes argues in her book, Bibliotherapy The Interactive Process: A Handbook, that bibliotherapy can help people come to terms and deal with conditions like anxiety, depression, mild-alcoholism, and eating disorders, among others. McCarty Hynes holds that bibliotherapy provides peace of mind and, depending on the individual and their condition, can also provide focus, recognition and understanding of one’s feelings.
Different types of bibliotherapy
In my case, I combine therapy with reading and meditation. However, there are plenty of ways you can practice bibliotherapy. Let’s look at an overview of the different types of bibliotherapy that exist:
- Prescriptive bibliotherapy: This is the process of choosing a book for yourself; this type of therapy doesn’t always require a therapist, but it may help you address mental health topics and concerns by developing or strengthening your capacity for translating complex feelings and sensations into words.
- Books on prescription: These are books prescribed by mental health experts. In some libraries, there are sections with books chosen by experts and librarians depending on what you want or need to focus on. There are also online libraries where you can find excellent self-help materials.
- Developmental bibliotherapy: This method’s goal is to help navigate minors’ personal and emotional development. At the same time, it’s a way to validate emotions, deal with feelings of failure, and reframe personal problems in a productive way. Teachers and librarians usually use this method, as well as parents who wish to aid their childrens’ growth and development.
The benefits of bibliotherapy
- If you currently have no one to talk to or share your experience with, you can find a safe place in literature to explore the many questions you may have and better understand your emotions.
- Interactive bibliotherapy can be used as a catalyst for healing and empowering emotional-abused women.
- In therapy and other counseling groups, bibliotherapy allows us to give and receive feedback on the interpretations of what’s being read. It can also improve communication, encourage conversations, and create deeper connections between participants.
- Some educators promote the use of bibliotherapy to develop Emotional Intelligence and socioemotional skills.
- Bibliotherapy can help us recognize that we’re never truly alone in our experiences; our experiences are shared by characters in a story and by other people in real life. This is known as universalization.
- Books may show how characters or the author deal with their feelings and how specific situations. This can help us find alternative approaches to handle similar situations.
- Through some books we may identify and recognise if we’ve been victims of any type of micro-aggression, be it racial, age, or gender-based, by deconstructing and increasing the understanding of the comments and reactions from people that we may have normalized or dismissed.
- Bibliotherapy can show you different perspectives of life as it stimulates your imagination and it can help you draw and mitigate your own map of experiences, enabling you to understand what your mind and body are going or have gone through.
5 bibliotherapy books
I’ve read many books over the years, but the ones listed here have been especially enlightening to me on my path. If you’re interested in looking deeper into bibliotherapy, be it to learn about it or to try it, you can start reading books on psychology and mindfulness that appeal to you, focusing on the guidance of experts you follow and like.
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: Trapped between two different worlds, the protagonist wonders how he can heal, understand, and rescue himself without abandoning who he is. Voung asks questions about masculinity, psychological problems, and how to survive in the world that is surrounding him.
- home body by Rupi Kaur: From a feminist perspective and through modern poetry, Kaur is able to translate complex feelings and sensations. She focuses on healing the body and soul through feminine energy and at the same time shows wisdom to unravel the evils of our time, such as being self-demanding, trauma, mental illness, and toxic relationships.
- Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel: Considered one of the first autobiographical novels to open a cultural and social dialogue on clinical depression. The protagonist narrates with extreme honesty about her broken life after a suicide attempt and the consequences of using Prozac, a psycho-pharmaceutical prescribed by her doctors.
- Things We Don’t Talk About by Pandora Owl: A short collection of thoughts, quotes, and poetry that opens multiple discussions about what it’s like to live with depression and mental illness, and the effect this can have on our loved ones and, most importantly, on ourselves.
- Pillow Thoughts by Courtney Peppernell: A collection of poems that are divided into 10 different sections tailored to the way you’re feeling as an individual. It addresses topics such as love, heartbreak, pain, loss, and self-esteem.
Bibliotherapy has certainly shown me the power of literature as an artistic way to heal psychological wounds and validate feelings. It offers multiple ways in which we can deal with several mental health issues while simultaneously liberating and embracing them without them tormenting us.
Through different social projects related to Human Rights, my education background in Literature and personal experiences as a migrant I came to the conclusion that words can help us to move forward and heal. I use writing as a method to spread the word about topics that help us imagine alternative ways of living where we are all included. I highly believe that in order to have an inclusive world we must focus on communicating the importance of holistic health and wellbeing as a key part of achieving a better life.
I am a health researcher who bridges data science and health research with direct experience in healthcare and university institutions, passionately and collaboratively pursuing the integration and synergy of all key areas of health and wellness. I believe in inclusion as the main pillar of our society, especially when it comes to health. Promotion and prevention in health empower people to adopt healthy decisions, thus I have been working during the last years in the development of inclusive and holistic health systems. What do I enjoy the most about my job? Realizing how we are making a difference in people’s lives, and seeing the result in their health journeys. I enjoy the challenge of questioning new paradigms and creating debate around them.
Anderson, H. (2015, January 6). Bibliotherapy: Can you read yourself happy? BBC. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20150106-can-you-read-yourself-happy
Febbraro, G. A. (2005, June). An investigation into the effectiveness of bibliotherapy and minimal contact interventions in the treatment of panic attacks. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61(6):763-79. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20097. PMID: 15546141.
HANDI Project Team, & Usher, T. (2013). Bibliotherapy for depression. Australian family physician, 42(4), 199–200.
Hynes, Arleen McCarty, & Hynes-Berry, Mary. (1986). Bibliotherapy: The Interactive Process: A Handbook. Westview Press.
International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy. (n.d.) Summary of Training Requirements. IFBPT. Retrieved February 1, 2021, from http://ifbpt.org/obtaining-a-credential/getting-trained/
Lindberg, S. (2020, November 7). Bibliotherapy: How Stories Can Help Guide the Therapeutic Process. Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-bibliotherapy-4687157
National Association for Poetry Therapy. (n.d.). Mission. Poetry Therapy. Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://poetrytherapy.org/mission