Can we improve our mental health by reading more?

In today’s world, many people use escapism as a means to get away from our sometimes harsh reality. Reading books is one of the most conventional forms of escapism, transferring the reader away from mundane routine to an alternate  existence. This retreat from everyday life certainly must impact our individual mental health, often for the better, but sometimes for the worse.

Modern-day society sees increasing pressures being imposed on people of all ages and from all backgrounds, with mental health issues becoming of utmost importance in the medical field. According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems are one of the main causes for the overall disease burden worldwide. Many varying measures have been encouraged to help people cope with these societal pressures, one being the incentive of reading for enjoyment. Various studies have been carried out by psychologists and medical professionals to show that people who read regularly as children are more likely to experience positive mental health as adults compared to children who rarely read. This research has made waves in the contemporary education of young children, catalysing the launch of new programmes such as The Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge, which encourages parents to read with and to their children in a bid to aid the mental wellbeing of these young people in years to come.

Furthermore, bibliotherapy has been a huge step forward in the modern treatment of mental illnesses. This form of therapy is now used predominantly in the treatment of various mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, but in a study carried out by The BioMed Central (BMC) on books as a treatment for eating disorders, it was found that fiction books were “broadly detrimental to mood, self-esteem, feelings about their bodies, and diet and exercise habits.” Results also showed, however, that respondents found books which they chose themselves less detrimental, and even sometimes beneficial in dealing with these issues. This aids the theory that reading can perhaps be used to contribute to mental wellbeing positively, but cannot be specifically prescribed.

This feeds into the converse debate that reading can pose a danger to mental well-being. It has been observed that some people use books as a trigger-mechanism, to deliberately exacerbate a mental disorder. Many claim books paint idyllic images which are unrealistic, giving readers false expectations of relationships, situations and thoughts. The close relationship a reader can find themselves in with a protagonist can provide an obsessive and enclosed environment from which one may struggle to remove themselves. This intimacy which a reader finds through reading can therefore be damaging, as it triggers emotions, memories or experiences which can cause the reader to recoil and withdraw from society in a negative way.

Nevertheless, reading has overall been proven to reduce stress, increase empathy, aid in creating better relationships with others, reduce symptoms of depression and improve general well-being throughout life. These are benefits which cannot be disputed – a break from the pressures of society, wrapped up on the sofa with a book and a hot cup of tea on a cold winter evening, could be the key to a more positive outlook on life.   

Reading can provide the mechanism required to help the mind switch off or go into overdrive. A good book can completely distract us from our society or cause us to question all elements within it. From non-fiction to fantasy, mystery to anthologies and everything in between, books provide a means of retreat for their reader. They can be a way of coping with the pressures of the outside world and, for a brief moment, living in an alternate existence.

 

Illustration: Charlotte Henderson

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