Many a bookworm will tell you that curling up with a paperback is a salve for the mind. And it seems scientists agree — with research suggesting reading can ease depression.
While it is not a cure, experts believe it is effective and could reduce the reliance on antidepressants in some cases. GPs in England dished out a record 64.7 million antidepressant prescriptions in 2016 for patients suffering with depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
The annual total has more than doubled in the past decade, fuelling fears that doctors are prescribing the pills too freely to patients with depression who might get better with alternative treatments, such as talking therapies.
Spread the word: ‘Bibliotherapy’ claims to cause behavioural changes via emotional responses
However, there can be long waiting lists for these on the NHS. And as unlikely as it sounds, reading could be a useful remedy. Two recent studies have found patients prescribed reading for mild to moderate depression — a treatment known as bibliotherapy — saw improvements in mood and psychological well-being.
In September 2017, researchers at the University of Turin in Italy published an analysis of ten studies of bibliotherapy. Their findings, published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review, showed that participants in at least six studies saw significant improvements in their depression scores for up to three years after taking part in a course of reading therapy.
‘Bibliotherapy appears to be effective in the reduction of depressive symptoms in the long term, and could be an affordable treatment that reduces the need for medications,’ the researchers concluded.
Another study by a team at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, published in the journal PLOS One last year, looked at whether non-drug therapies such as reading could combat depression in the elderly.
Researchers found 18 studies, dating back decades, suggesting reading could boost the mood of pensioners. This thinking moved into mainstream psychiatric medicine in 2013 when a ‘Books On Prescription’ scheme was launched by the Department of Health.
Widespread: GPs dished out a record 64.7 million anti-depressant in England during 2016
The project claims to have helped more than 700,000 people with mental health issues since it launched. Around 20 per cent are referred by their GP or psychiatrist, while the rest ‘self-refer’ after reading about the scheme.
Several of the publications are self-help books — such as Overcoming Depression by Paul Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Derby University, and Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel By Changing The Way You Think.
But patients also have access to mood- boosting classic works of fiction, plays and poetry recommended by other depressed patients, including Poldark by Winston Graham — the novel that spawned the BBC TV hit.
‘Many people with depression feel isolated, but reading about other people’s experiences — even if they are fictional — can give them hope,’ says Dr Liz Brewster, a lecturer in medical education at Lancaster Medical School who has studied the effects of bibliotherapy in mental illness.
Many people with depression feel isolated, but reading about other people’s experiences — even if they are fictional — can give them hope
‘The Books On Prescription scheme is a first-line treatment, either instead of antidepressants, or alongside them, while patients are waiting for talking therapies.’ Dr Brewster’s research last year suggested that even easy-to-read crime dramas can bolster the well-being of patients with depression, as she reported in the journal Medical Humanities.
Dr Brewster says: ‘My research shows some patients like the comfort and safety of a crime drama, where they know the crime will be solved.’
The idea is that reading causes behavioural changes through emotional responses to the written word, rather than a chemical shift in the brain as medication might.
It’s not just the written word that has this mood-enhancing effect. In a study last year in the journal Basic And Clinical Neuroscience, researchers at Tehran University in Iran tracked mood swings in 60 elderly people without depression while they listened to a series of eight audio-book stories.
The results showed mood improved and volunteers were less anxious and aggressive.
Professor Carmine Pariante from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, says print and audio-books work better than similar TV shows because the reader has control over how long they spend reading or listening.
Of course reading is by no means a cure, Dr Brewster adds: ‘Patients using bibliotherapy also need to make other changes that will improve mental and physical health — such as increased exercise and a healthier diet.’
Professor Pariante agrees: ‘Reading is not a substitute for antidepressants in patients who really need them.’