Just what the doctor ordered: Books will be prescribed as medicine in the UK

Under the Books on Prescription program, doctors can prescribe books to patients with mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.

'The Feeling Good Handbook' by David D. Burns is one of the titles that can be prescribed under the new program.

If you've always thought that curling up with a book at the end of a long day helped to boost your mood, it turns out that you are right. And there’s research to back you up.

Under the Books on Prescription program, UK doctors will begin prescribing books – yes, books – to patients with mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, the Reading Agency announced Thursday at the British Library. The Agency is a UK charity centered on books and reading.

“There is a growing evidence base that shows that self-help reading can help people with certain mental health conditions to get better,” Miranda McKearney, chief executive of the project and a spokesperson at the Reading Agency, said in a statement.

According to the UK’s Guardian, “there is a wealth of evidence” that supports the use of books, specifically self-help books, in treating mental health conditions. The most recent was a report published in the journal Plos One that demonstrated that people who read self-help books over the course of a year had measurably lower levels of depression.

In the UK, Books will be prescribed for patients suffering from a host of conditions, including anger, anxiety, binge eating, depression, anxiety, obsessions and compulsions, panic, phobias, low self-esteem, stress, worry, and even chronic pain, fatigue, and relationship problems.

Authorities have slated 30 titles for prescription, which are available in libraries across the land for patients to check out. The titles include “The Feeling Good Handbook,” “How to Stop Worrying,” and “Overcoming Anger and Irritability.”

“All the evidence does suggest that it does work and we have been extremely rigorous in putting together our list, making sure there is an evidence base for each book – that they have been used and found to be effective,” Reading Agency’s director of research, Debbie Hicks, told the Guardian.

It's not the first such initiative. Denmark, Wales, and New Zealand already have similar programs, with Wales pioneering the idea in 2003 under the direction of clinical psychologist Professor Neil Frude. “The doctors are already there, the books are already there and so are the libraries. It just needed joining them up,” Frude said of the program, which he described as a "no-brainer." Today in Wales 30,000 self-help books are borrowed from libraries every year, with three of the 10 most borrowed books belonging to the self-help genre.

And as bookworms have known all along, it turns out it’s not just self-help books that can make readers feel better. Under the Mood Boosting Books initiative, the Reading Agency is also encouraging people to use novels, poetry, and reading groups to feel better.

“We hope our Reading Well health work... will have a double benefit,” the Reading Agency said in a statement. “It will use reading and libraries to make a real difference to people's lives, and it should help powerful new partners see what a vital, multi-faceted role libraries play, and that investing in a strong public library system is a really smart move, because it can help prevent social problems further down the line.”

Books as medicine? We can’t think of a better prescription. 

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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