We are in the midst of an alarming global mental health crisis. Its impact is felt most acutely by our youth. Nearly 20 percent of children ages 3-17 in the U.S. have a mental health issue, and suicidal behaviors among high school students increased more than 40 percent in the decade before 2019. As for 2020 and beyond, the isolation and sudden changes brought on by COVID exacerbated an already dire situation.
The National College Health Assessment, published by the American College Health Association, found that nearly three-quarters of students report moderate or severe psychological distress. This is all amidst a shortage of mental health professionals.
For me, this epidemic is more than an issue of health care or one of several crises worthy of our attention. It’s personal. I lost a son to psychiatric drug interactions after a lifetime of mental health struggles.
We urgently need innovative and accessible strategies to help our youth, and turning to an age-old practice rooted in ancient wisdom just might be the answer. The Ancient Greeks inscribed the words “a healing place for the soul” above their library entrances. They were practicing bibliotherapy, the guided reading of specific texts to promote wellness. Utilizing the ability of books to put feelings into words offers significant therapeutic potential in the mental health landscape.
As the co-founder of Wise Readers to Leaders, a literacy program for underserved students, and the author of children’s books about mental health, I have seen firsthand the transformative effects of bibliotherapy. By observing a child grappling with feelings of isolation or sadness and then engaging with a particular story, one can witness a demeanor change. Eyes brighten, and a sense of burden lifts as they discuss and process their feelings.
It is well established that engaging children in the act of reading is a way to enhance their literacy and cognitive abilities, but we now also know that it can be an effective way to contribute positively to their mental health. That’s because stories act both as mirrors and windows that offer peeks into other people’s lives and struggles, thus reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Children’s books can address complex emotions and challenges through engaging narratives, imaginative characters, and relatable situations in a way that children easily understand. Furthermore, reading can promote empathy in children. By exposing them to diverse characters and scenarios, books can help children understand and appreciate differences, enhancing their emotional intelligence and social skills.
Another advantage of adults reading with a child is that it fosters open dialogue about mental health. A story portraying a character facing a particular challenge or emotion can serve as a springboard for a discussion, allowing children to express their feelings and concerns in a safe and supportive environment. And this can then aid in early identification of any potential mental health issues, enabling prompt intervention and treatment. Moreover, there is a ripple effect beyond the listener. Attitudes and behaviors of parents, educators, and society as a whole can be influenced. By presenting mental health as a natural and essential aspect of overall well-being and talking about it openly and without shame, we can challenge outdated beliefs and foster a culture of support and understanding.
Bibliotherapy offers a unique advantage for children because they are under the nurturing watch of an adult who can often introduce a consistent home-focused program. This means parents can effectively collaborate with therapists and educators, even without formal training or specialized skills. Their success is anchored in the deep bond of love and trust they share with their child, coupled with their consistent presence in the child’s daily life.
According to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, bibliotherapy can be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents. A University of Sussex study found that reading for just six minutes can reduce stress levels by up to 68 percent. The rhythmic pattern of words and the immersive nature of stories promotes relaxation, and can significantly improve mood. Reading has been found to be effective in helping children with internalizing behaviors (anxiety and depression), externalizing behavior (aggression), and prosocial behavior (behavior intentions and attitudes toward others).
There has been success with college-aged students as well. A 10-week mindfulness-based stress reduction bibliotherapy program led to a significant decrease in depression, anxiety, stress, perceived stress, and anxiety sensitivity and an increase in overall quality of life.
While only anecdotal at this point, we are seeing significant improvement in mental well-being among college students across the country who have participated in the Hillel 10-week mindfulness-based bibliotherapy wellness curriculum. This program originated through the Wellness Initiative created in memory of my son Bradley at USC Hillel. Students read and discuss Jewish texts and modern psychology concepts to achieve more balance and fulfillment amidst life’s difficult challenges. Through a national grant program from Hillel International, it is now being practiced at 60 campuses nationwide.
Bibliotherapy is broadly available. It requires no sophisticated technology, making it easily accessible, regardless of digital literacy levels. Bibliotherapy can be a game-changer in regions with minimal mental health facilities and limited access to technology. Libraries, long considered centers of knowledge and enlightenment, can additionally become wellness centers, democratizing mental health support.
As the parent of a child who suffered from mental health challenges, I can attest to the simple fact that the associated stigma is real and hard to combat. With a non-clinical approach, bibliotherapy can bypass the stigma associated with traditional mental health treatment. By normalizing therapeutic activities as part of daily life – in this case, reading – it subtly embeds mental health care into routines, reducing the barriers to seeking help. Bibliotherapy can be a viable treatment option for struggling individuals who may not have access to or prefer not to pursue traditional forms of therapy.
In the ongoing battle against the mental health crisis, the simple power of the written word offers a universally accessible and profoundly human remedy. Bibliotherapy encourages its participants to embark on a journey of self-discovery and growth. It is vital for mental health professionals, educators, and society as a whole to both recognize and integrate the practice into mental health care programs and daily life. Our ancestors knew words could heal. It’s time to harness their power, unlocking our own emotional intelligence, resilience, and a deeper understanding of ourselves and others.
Andrea Sonnenberg is an attorney.