It has always been accepted that reading is a good thing, but is it actually good for your health? Jo Ind reports
The write tonic
It wIas once said that a library is a hospital for the mind. If that is true, what could make more sense than using reading groups as a way of enabling people to recover from mental illness?
Two Birmingham writers, Polly Wright and Mandy Ross, are to launch a group in which people suffering in their mental health will be able to read poems and fiction out loud and discuss it together.
The Reading for Well-Being programme is being funded by the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust and will take place in Barberry and Oleaster Centres in Edgbaston, the Zinnia Centre in Sparkhill, the Lyndon Clinic in Solihull and Park Lane Garden Centre, in Aston.
Polly Wright, manager of The Hearth Centre, which is about creating change through the arts and which is running the reading groups, says she has seen how effective theatre and literature can be in bringing about well-being.
“I see it work so much all the time,” she says. “I think a piece of fiction, whether it’s a piece of writing or a piece of theatre, can provide an external focus which allows people to reflect on painful things in their lives, mental distress.
“People then talk, not about themselves but the external representation. It’s a safe way of encouraging people to start self-reflection, without all the risks.
“I did a play only last week about self-harm. We were doing it to teachers and health professionals who were meant to be very used to that kind of thing. At the end people weren’t able to talk because they were crying. If you had a powerpoint presentation it wouldn’t have the same effect.
“Reading will be very different. To be honest, it’s less challenging as far as demanding immediate commitment is concerned. It’s more reflective. I think it encourages a different set of well-being skills, a quieter, more internal way of thinking. It attracts different sorts of people.”
The groups set up by Polly and Mandy will be building on the work of Get Into Reading (GIR), where David Fearnley, consultant forensic psychiatrist and deputy CE at Mersey Care NHS Trust, runs a weekly reading group for staff and patients on a secure ward at Ashworth Hospital.
It has been so successful that there are now plans for GIR schemes to be set up around the country.
Mandy and Polly have run some taster groups but will be running them on a weekly basis from September.
“We’ve had a fantastic response from people in all sorts of different roles at the mental health trusts – consultants, psychologists, nursing assistants, people emailing on their night shift, people working on the community,” says Mandy, who is a poet and has previously facilitated a writing group for cancer patients at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
“It’s been very exciting. Reading crosses all sorts of barriers. When patients are in a reading group together, they have far more contact and communication and conversation with each other. It offers a human connection.
“David Fearnley has shown how the participants feel more confident and happier as a result of the reading groups. It’s starting to affect the ward atmosphere in a really good way.”
Mandy has been in a Jewish reading group for more than ten years.
“I come out each time on a high. My sense of belonging in my community and my knowledge of that culture had been deepened by the reading that we’ve done,” she adds.
“I’m very swayed by my own experience that reading can give great benefits that are in addition to simply reading.”
Polly agrees: “Nothing makes me think about myself in the same way and my position in the world as much as reading. This reading group is an idea whose time has come.”
Polly and Mandy will also be running a series of six half-day training sessions in the autumn for Trust staff interested in developing skills in facilitating reading groups.
They are still developing their reading lists, but they are agreed that whatever else, the literature they offer to the group has to be of a very high standard.
“We’ve looked at all sorts of literature – Urdu, Rumi and Afro-Carribean literature, literature to reflect the world we live on, rather than that of dead, white English males,” says Mandy. “It works best when it is quite difficult. The groups tackle something that’s difficult to read and work together to make sense of it. Sharing the challenge together on something that’s hard leads to a feeling of belonging and achievement.”
They are starting with poems and short stories and will move onto novels in due course. The Necklace by French story writer Guy de Maupassant is a favourite because, in being about borrowing an expensive necklace that gets lost, it opens up discussion about debt, grief, relationships, the value of work and other pertinent issues.
Consultant psychiatrist Femi Oyebode, from the University of Birmingham, is backing the reading groups. “Literature is a magnificent window into human emotions, the very subject matter of psychiatry,” he says. “It allows us, as it were, to eavesdrop, to observe, to participate in and reflect on myriad circumstances, mostly from the safety of our own homes.
“But of these, it is perhaps the capacity for reflection in all its manifestations, including ethical reflection, that is most important for a doctor. Ethical reflection requires both compassion and distance, that is to say, that through literature we come both to stand in the other’s shoes and in our own, and in doing this we grasp what is essential about human life, our connectedness, our fellowship.
“I continue to use fiction, autobiography, poetry and letters to teach medical students. The words speak directly to the students and by so doing teach them the importance of language.”