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We all had our favorite stories as kids — those books we begged our parents to read to us a million times over. As adults now, time might be tight, but delving into a really good book offers the same fulfillment and retreat. Our captivation with stories is, of course, as natural and inborn as our desire for music, our appreciation of art, our enjoyment of play. Little wonder, given they contributed so profoundly to social construction and cohesion for millennia. First, within a rich oral tradition, stories were passed down with great care and even ceremony to impart survival lessons and epic tales that circumscribed a tribe's history and social mores. Narratives later became integral in spreading and binding together larger civilizations for the sake of formal religion and cultural identification. Stories, throughout human existence, have also been a conduit for the ageless, the universal, and the transcendental. Today, in a professional field dubbed bibliotherapy, mental health experts and educators explore how our natural affinity for stories can support our general well-being and even provide a healing influence for illness and trauma.

The field of bibliotherapy obliges the guidance of professionals, which commonly include trained librarians/teachers, social workers, psychologists or health practitioners. The u201Cdevelopmental levelu201D of bibliotherapy, according to experts at the American Counseling Association, incorporates u201C[t]he use of literature and facilitative processes by skilled helpers to assist individuals in dealing with life transitions and normal developmental issues.u201D Clinical applications, on the other hand, involve u201Cskilled mental health or medical practitionersu201D who utilize literature u201Cin meeting specific therapeutic goals for the purpose of assisting individuals in dealing with severe disorders and traumatic life experiences.u201D In either case, the given professional assigns or recommends particular texts and refers to or discusses them within the learning, medical, or counseling relationship. (Bibliotherapy also includes writing therapy — more on that next week.) Bibliotherapy as reading therapy encompasses both the use of u201Cdidacticu201D literature like self-help books and the broad category of u201Cimaginativeu201D literature, which can include fiction, poetry, drama, and biographical texts.

Experts agree that, although it is commonly used, the impact and relative effectiveness of bibliotherapy is difficult to quantify. Research has shown mixed results, but outcomes support bibliotherapy as a valuable adjunctive therapy for physical and mental health issues and an option for those who don't respond to traditional therapeutic methods. Meta-analysis shows that it may be u201Cmore effective for certain problem types (assertion training, anxiety, and sexual dysfunction) than for others (weight loss, impulse control, and studying problems).u201D

Bibliotherapy has played a larger role in professional depression treatment than in many other conditions. Some research suggests that bibliotherapy for depression administered by a family physician may be just as effective as standard anti-depressant prescriptions. The study leaders noted that their findings present an economically efficient alternative for patients who cannot afford ongoing prescription costs (or — my addition — who prefer a treatment that doesn't include medication). Another study supported the relatively minimal need for follow up care in bibliotherapy applications for mild to moderate depression. Among 84 participants, those who received minimal telephone follow up contact saw essentially the same gains as the group that received more intensive phone-based follow up. Both groups experienced u201Csignificant reductionsu201D in their depressive symptoms in comparison with the control group.

In a different objective, bibliotherapy has also been studied and applied to boost u201Ccognitive reserve,u201D the intellectual u201Cskills and repertoireu201D that can stave off the cognitive decline inherent to conditions like lead poisoning and multiple sclerosis.

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