​​​​​​​Medicine for the Mind: Reading for mental wellbeing during difficult times

Young boy reads under a cover by torchlight

Jennifer Horan is a school librarian in South Lanarkshire who is currently pursuing a research degree in children’s literature and young people’s mental wellbeing. She is the chair of Youth Libraries Group Scotland and chair-elect of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals 2021.

Ah, books and their healing powers, supplying us with amusing anecdotes throughout history. The library of Alexandria boldly proclaimed above its front door that its literary content was “medicine for the mind”, ancient Egyptians ingested uplifting stories and poems in the belief that it would improve their moods, and over in ancient Greece doctors regularly prescribed comedic theatre performances for melancholy souls. I can’t help but think there’s something in it. Our theatres are in darkness at the moment and eating our anthologies feels too drastic, so reading seems like the perfect solution for getting through these trying times.

Studies into the impact of reading on wellbeing have found evidence to support these ancient rituals. Psychologist Ann Cattanach carried out extensive research into story therapy for child victims of abuse, finding it to be a beneficial tool for children to process their experiences [1]. Miller and Boe worked in hospitals, examining the positive effect reading had on young patients when stories reflected their own lives [2], and Trounstine and Waxler studied prison reading programmes that helped to reduce aggression in young men who had been previously unable to verbalise reasons for their anger [3]. Even Tolkien recognised the power of situating everyday problems in a fantasy world to help readers see solutions clearly.

Anecdotal evidence from those who have direct experience of reading for wellbeing is also convincing. A survey of Canadian citizens found that book readers, when compared to non-book readers, were more likely to report that they had very good or excellent general health and very good or excellent mental health [4]. Earlier this year the Scottish Library and Information Council published Health on the Shelf, its report into health and wellbeing support offered by public libraries in Scotland, including bibliotherapy. Young people reported that reading “improved emotional and mental wellbeing, specifically relating to confidence, self-esteem, hope, isolation and emotional intelligence”. Similarly, Midlothian Libraries’ Braw Blether group found that its shared reading programme provided its participants with “enhanced relaxation, calmness, improved quality of life [and] a safe, social space in which to reflect on personal experiences evoked by the text”. The report also cited readers who believed reading to have aided their mental health recovery [5]. Reading has also been found to bring comfort to those who have experienced the trauma of war or of fleeing persecution. In response to this, IBBY maintains a library in Lampedusa’s refugee camp, providing children with access to books for relief from their harrowing experiences [6].

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and anxious in the current climate, but, as the studies above demonstrate, stories can be a powerful tool in helping us feel calm, in reducing loneliness, offering escapism, and giving us hope. During this time of physical distancing, I recommend connecting virtually with pupils, colleagues, friends and family, and sharing recommendations of books that help you to feel positive. This doesn’t have to be novels; poetry and short stories work just as well, particularly if it is a struggle to concentrate on novels. Recording yourself reading a few lines from a favourite story can bring comfort to those we can’t be physically close to. I have been hosting weekly reading for wellbeing sessions on our school library Google Classroom, where pupils and staff share how reading has helped their wellbeing each week. We also foster a sense of community from our Drop Everything And Read sessions, knowing that we are all reading at the same time. Continuing with your First Minister’s Reading Challenge activities can also help pupils maintain a reading routine, with more ideas in the reading culture during lockdown webinar.

The most important thing for me is encouraging reading for pleasure, and true pleasure is a wonder cure for the mind.


[1] Cattanach, A. (1997), Children’s Stories in Play Therapy, London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd.

[2] Miller, C. & Boe, J. (1990), “Tears into diamonds: Transformation of child psychic trauma through sandplay and storytelling”, Arts in Psychotherapy, 17 (3), pp247–257.

[3] Trounstine, J. and Waxler, R. (2005), Finding a Voice: The practice of changing lives through literature, Michigan, The University of Michigan Press.

[4] Hil, K (2013), “The Arts and Individual Well-Being in Canada: Connections between Cultural Activities and Health, Volunteering, Satisfaction with Life, and Other Social Indicators in 2010”, Statistical Insights on the Arts, 11 (2).

[5] Tyler, A. (2020), “Health on the Shelf: Health and wellbeing in public libraries in Scotland”, Scottish Library and Information Council.

[6] International Board on Books for Young People “Silent Books” project 


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