Bibliotherapy: the power of words

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What is Bibliotherapy?

Bibliotherapy brochure

The use of books for therapeutic purposes is known as 'bibliotherapy’. Self-help books have been used in this way for many years and are now being recommended as a means of providing psychological therapy for people experiencing emotional and psychological difficulties.

The effectiveness of bibliotherapy has been well established in clinical trials. Bibliotherapy has been recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) UK as a useful start in treating mild and moderate depression, anxiety and panic and some other mental health problems.

In a position paper on mental health and primary care in the UK the Royal College of General Practitioners said:

'Personal choice and autonomy are critical in maintaining mental health. Often people want to help themselves,approaching the family and peer group before coming into contact with primary care. When asked, people repeatedly say that they want to learn how to manage their own problems for themselves as well as draw upon resources in the community.'

Bibliotherapy in Ireland

In March 2007, the North Inner City Partnership in Primary Care (Dublin), in collaboration with Dublin City Public Libraries, piloted the first book prescription scheme in Ireland, led by Elaine Martin, HSE Senior Psychologist. The objective of the North Inner City Book Prescription Scheme was to give GPs, mental health professionals and patients choice in the treatment approach to some mild and moderate mental health difficulties. The scheme provided GPs and other professionals with a list of high quality self-help books. Practitioners in turn brought these books to the attention of their patients and clients who were likely to benefit from their use. The books were stocked by local libraries and therefore readily accessible. The appetite for a self-help approach seemed to be great, with over 2,500 books issued from six inner city libraries in the first year of the scheme. Since that time similar local initiatives have sprung up throughout the country.

In February 2009 the Library Council of Ireland, the HSE and the Irish College of General Practitioners introduced The Power of Words scheme – a national list of 30 books to support and aid persons to gain insight into and treat their emotional and psychological problems.

The Book Selection

Many thousands of self-help books exist and while the best of these are highly effective, others are not so useful. In preparation for the 2013 scheme, hundreds of the best evidence-based titles were read and reviewed by willing psychologists and General Practitioners working in Ireland. Based on their recommendations a long list of 97 books and a short list of 42 books have been compiled. Most of the books chosen are written by leading psychologists with clinical expertise and many present self-help versions of established treatment programmes.

Over the past year the book selection has been revised and updated, reflecting and incorporating matters of concern to public health, developments in the treatment of various difficulties and the support needs of carers too.

The short and long lists include books for adults on the common psychological problems that people experience, including depression, anxiety, panic, eating difficulties, stress and low self-esteem.

The short and long lists include books for children and families on topics such as parenting, worries, bullying, bereavement, separation and eating issues.

Accessing the Books and Reviews

These lists will now be available to all GPs and circulated to all Public Libraries. Library staff can assist and guide users of the bibliotherapy collection. In addition to Customer Care and Disability Awareness training, library staff have also attended training to support the bibliotherapy initiative and the delivery of library services to people with mental health difficulties in general.

Most of the listed books are also available for purchase in good bookshops and electronically.

Who Might Benefit?

Book based therapy will not be suitable for everyone, but it is certainly appropriate for a proportion of those who consult their GP or other healthcare professionals with a psychological problem. For those who are able to make use of bibliotherapy, the books highlight a problem-solving approach to recovery and emphasise the potential of self-management. The person becomes knowledgeable about their difficulty and is encouraged to engage in self-monitoring, self-assessment and guided self-treatment. The emphasis is on the individual’s active involvement and empowerment in recovery instead of, or in conjunction with, medication to deal with the problem. Bibliotherapy is ideally suited to a person who has a good level of literacy, who is highly motivated to work independently to tackle his or her own problem, and who is familiar with the process of following a structured ‘recipe’ in a book (as in a cookbook or DIY book).

Useful websites


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