Can reading improve your mental health?

reading

James Withey, author of The Recovery Letters, has written an article about the power of reading and how it can make a huge difference in a time of need. James was diagnosed with clinical depression, attempted suicide and spent time in psychiatric hospital and crisis services where he developed the idea for The Recovery Letters.

In my notebook where I record all the books I’ve read, 2011 has thirty books listed. I’ve scored them and listen my top 5 favourites. Sarah Walter’s ‘Nightwatch’ came in at number one, if you’re interested. Then turn the page to 2012 and it’s blank. Nothing. Not one book.

This was the year my depression truly hit, and I couldn’t read at all. Not one sentence. It was a massive loss. My life was built around reading. I went to reading groups, haunted musty second-hand book shops at the weekend, read on my way to work meetings (when I should have been looking at the previous minutes), and read by the river each lunchtime delaying the time when I would have to go back to my desk.

Depression is all about loss. Loss of concentration, loss of vitality, loss of happiness, loss of meaning and loss of hope. Depression takes away all your coping mechanisms just when you need them to fight the illness; that’s how cruel it is.

When I did start to read again, I could only read about depression. My brain was so full, so pre-occupied, that only subjects akin to how I was feeling could be absorbed. I read Dr Tim Cantopher’s ‘Depressive illness: curse of the strong’ because it was short and accessible. It helped because it told me how to manage my depression and validated all the feelings I was having which I thought were just peculiar to me.

The sense of pride and accomplishment on having read a book was enormous. It meant that I tried other books, still books about depression, but longer. They took me weeks and weeks to read but I did read them. Small but wide expansive steps forward.

Very slowly, I started to read novels again. Not Dostoevsky, not James Joyce and I left Chaucer on the book shelf. But in time I read novels again, none that would win the Booker Prize, more’s the pity, but I read the words and I could follow the plot.  It was a relief and joy to be able to immerse myself in a fictional character’s problems rather than my own. There started to be room in my mind for other worlds beyond my own dark reality.

When we let them, books will give back as much as we invest in them and it doesn’t matter what you read, just the act itself is a positive thing. Because by reading we know ourselves better, we become better people; more rounded, more aware of other people. And reading is mindful, meditative and present, it is an antidote to the crammed commuter train and the angry driver gesticulating on the motorway.

When we can’t read it feels like a failure, we can get angry with books and blame reading itself. But there are books for everyone, at whatever stage we’re at, we just need help to find the right ones.

As a young child a lot of fiction didn’t appeal to me. Instead, I read non-fiction books about India and Malaysia, places I would visit when I was an adult, places with spice markets and beautiful languages. My nephew struggled with reading until he found Rick Riordan’s books and suddenly new worlds were opened. There is a photo of him engrossed in his book, in the hallway, in everyone’s way and with utter joy on his face. That’s what reading, any reading, can do.

When I was acutely unwell, I was told to read large books on depression, all about five hundred pages long. I couldn’t. However, they did make really effective door stops. It was like being told that once I had arrived at the beautiful tropical island after the 48-hour flight, it would be worth it. The trouble was, I wasn’t able to get out of bed to go the airport. What I needed was an accessible book about depression, that I could read in small chunks, that would give me hope that recovery was possible. I couldn’t find that book, so decided I needed to create it.

The Recovery Letters book contains sixty-five letters from people around the world, recovering from all types of depression, addressed to people who are experiencing it now. The letters are all below 1,000 words making them easier to read. Also, you don’t need to read the book like a traditional one, page after page. You can flick through the book, find a letter that appeals and put the book down again and when you go back to it you don’t need to remember the plot or the information form previous chapter; it’s just there waiting for you.

As I look back into my notebook, there have been better and worse years for reading. This year I’ve read six books so far which is great. 2015, I read six books all year. But it’s not numbers that count, it’s finding the book that appeals, speaks to us at the point where we are now.

It’s about knowing that there are no right and wrong books, or right and wrong types of reading. All the matters is finding something that hits our soul, makes us carry on with life and revel in the ecstasy and simplicity of words on a page.


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One thought

  1. Great article! People develop many different mechanisms to cope with depression; books are good ways to escape the low and go into a different world. I am happy that people are taking efforts to deal with their condition. It is a great achievement.

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