Medicine for the soul…

This was the inscription above the door of the library in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. The Egyptians clearly recognised the therapeutic benefits of reading. The idea of Bibliotherapy as a concept therefore is not new, but has recently been re-packaged and rolled out in a national scheme called ‘Information/Books on Prescription’ (I/BOP).

A collaboration between Health Services, The Reading Agency and local libraries, the I/BOP project offers an alternative approach to dealing with mental health issues by enabling patients to ‘self-help’. The project was introduced nationally in June 2013. Put simply, a GP diagnosing early stage mental health issues can prescribe an ‘Information Prescription’, which recommends either specific or general self-help study books from a list compiled with input from health specialists. The patient takes the prescription along to a local participating library, which provides the books.

A report by The Centre for Economic Performance’s Mental Health Policy Group states that “mental illness accounts for nearly 40% of morbidity, compared for example 2% due to diabetes”.[1] The annual expenditure on healthcare for mental illness amounts to some £14 billion. Interventions such as I/BOP are essential projects working to reduce both the expenditure and the human costs of mental illness.

The self-help approach through Bibliotherapy has a ‘wealth of evidence…’ that supports its use for illnesses such as depression, anxiety and self-harm.[2] Using book-based cognitive behavioural therapy, the I/BOP scheme has reached 275,000 people during its first year, and seen a 113% increase in the loan of titles on the list.[3] The patient is not required to have library membership, although evidence shows that those participating in the scheme are more likely to join and access additional books to those prescribed.

Furthermore, although the focus of I/BOP is on self-help books, The Reading Agency runs another scheme alongside I/BOP entitled ‘Reading Well – Mood Boosting books’, which urges users of I/BOP (indeed everyone) to read the uplifting novels, non-fiction and poetry titles recommended on their reading list as a means of maintaining well-being. The subject of a study carried out by cognitive neurophysiologist Dr David Lewis suggests that reading for as little as six minutes can reduce stress levels by 68%, compared with listening to music (61%) having a cup of tea/coffee (54%) or taking a walk (42%).[4] Other studies have shown that the very act of reading literary fiction improves Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand others’ emotions,[5] although it may be argued that the I/BOP mood boosting list is compiled more of popular fiction than literary, we gain further insight into how reading literature has positive cognitive connotations.

On 26 January 2015 an I/BOP scheme specifically aimed at suffers of dementia and their carers was launched nationally, and a scheme accessible to children and young people with mental health issues is expected to be launched in 2016. To discover more about the scheme and the reading lists follow the link to The Reading Agency website.[3] I’d be interested to hear suggestions of ‘mood boosting books’ from you.

— Michelle Brown, Administrative Assistant


  1. The Centre for Economic Performance’s Mental Health Policy Group. How mental health loses out in the NHS. London: The London School of Economics and Political Science. 2012.
  2. Chamberlain D, Heaps D, Robert I. Bibliotherapy and information prescriptions: a summary of the published evidence-base and recommendations from past and ongoing Books on Prescription projects. J Psychiatr Mental Health Nurs. 2008; 15: 24-36.
  3. The Reading Agency. Reading Well Books on Prescription Evaluation Report 2013/14. London: The Reading Agency. 2013.
  4. Telegraph Health News. Reading ‘can help reduce stress’. The Telegraph. 30 March 2009.
  5. Kidd DC, Castano E. Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science. 2013; 342: 377-80.

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