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About Mental Health

“Miss Tweak” is anxious. She’s anxious about the big things, and the little things, and the homework assignments, and her racing mind, and her inability to focus, and why she is here on Earth. It all adds up to a serious case of panic anxiety disorder. The recommended cure?

The Thirty-Nine Steps, a tightly written spy thriller by John Buchan set a century ago in the United Kingdom. “If you enjoy this, your road to recovery will be short,” according to the therapists. The bibliotherapists.

Can books save your life — or at least fix it? The women behind the Bibliotherapy Service prescribe remedies of a readable sort, words and stories they believe will help readers navigate the bumps in the road. To wit: If you’re freaking out about the stresses of single parenting, try To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. For a depressed person who is having trouble reading, they recommend Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, with its “strong message of listening to the voice of reason and love within” — audiobook style. This isn’t FDA-approved, but it’s no gimmick either: In 2013, a British charity announced a collection of dozens of “prescription titles” for use at the offices of general practitioners, according to The Guardian. Thus, our q
uestion: Is it time to dispense with the old prescription pad and open up the card catalog?

Reading fiction — the highbrow, literary kind especially — for just a couple of minutes improves empathy, according to a study in Science. The mechanism is neurological: In one study, when people read about an experience, their brains lit up in the same areas they would if they were experiencing that themselves. And there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence besides. It might be surprising to learn that reading about depression — say, in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar — could make a depressed person feel better. But it can, according to Susan Elderkin, one of the founders of the Bibliotherapy Service and the coauthor of a book based on it, The Novel Cure. “There’s a sense of not being alone with your suffering,” she says.

Of course, it’s possible that the wrong novel could do some serious damage — and actually induce more harm. “It’s important whether picking medications or psychotherapy options to tailor it to the specific needs and goals of the patients,” Matthew Goldenberg, a psychiatrist who has used bibliotherapy selectively, says. “I’m finding it’s a combination of medications and psychotherapy.” Just as pills work for some, reading is no silver bullet. And the solitary act of reading could prove to be counterproductive to other nonmedical activities often prescribed for depression, like exercise and being social.

But for patients who are looking for guidance and peace of mind in nonpill form, doctors would do well to take a page out of this book. One library in ancient Thebes had it right when someone inscribed above its door: “Healing Place of the Soul.”