The medicinal power of literature: Books on prescription to be introduced

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'Mood boosting' poetry and novels to be recommended by GPs

People consulting their local GP over mental health issues may find they are written a surprising prescription, one redeemed at the local library rather than a pharmacy.

The “big guns” of the library and medical worlds have joined for an initiative to help treat those with mild to moderate mental health problems.

Patients could be recommended anything from one of 30 medical volumes dealing with specific conditions to “mood boosting books” – novels and poetry – from writers including Jo Brand, Bill Bryson and Terry Jones. 

The Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) and The Reading Agency today announced the scheme dubbed “Books on Prescription” which starts in May. “There’s growing evidence that shows that self-help reading can help people with certain mental health issues get better,” Miranda McKearney, director of The Reading Agency, said.

This forms part of a wider vision for the future of public libraries in the 21st century, including offering internet access and training, and potentially e-lending services.

Campaigners welcomed the initiatives but still feared not enough was being done to protect the libraries themselves. Desmond Clarke, who has been campaigning for eight years said: “There are some good ideas here, but the concern is they are tinkering around the edges and not facing the crisis head on.”

A total of 200 libraries closed last year with reports of a further 300 facing closure or to become run by volunteers this year. 

Janine Cox, president of the SCL, said today’s announcement was “a response to the challenging times we find ourselves in,” before adding: “We’re aware there are less of us as librarians, and we’re trying to capitalise on strengths that we have.”

The Book Prescription idea was particularly interesting as it could be funded out of health budgets. The scheme’s research and development is funded by Arts Council England to the tune of £19,900 from the Library Development Initiative Fund. The Reading Agency has also applied to the Department of Health for funding the following three years and expects the decision within the fortnight.

GPs will write out a prescription that will give patients immediate membership at the local library, with recommendations for titles rather than letting their patients rely on Google’s search results.

While local libraries have attempted their own schemes in the past, this has been backed by what Ms McKearney called the “big health guns”.

This includes the Department of Health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and importantly the Royal College of General Practitioners.

The Reading Agency has compiled a list of 30 volumes aimed at those suffering with mental health issues from anger and anxiety to depression and chronic pain.

The body is also updating its list of mood boosting books in time for the start of the scheme, and its current list includes A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon, Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson and The Awkward Age by Roger McGough.

Ms McKearney said: “It will encourage people to use the other reading aspects from libraries to help them feel better: novels, poetry and reading groups.”

The wider vision outlined yesterday’s involves a national backbone of services that libraries across the country will offer. Beyond health, those include help getting people online, community outreach, help claimants of the universal credit and, of course, offer books. The Government and libraries are currently scrutinising the issues around lending of e-books.

Mr Clarke, the library campaigner, questioned how this would be delivered: “The big concern, as well as the closures, is that services have been hollowed out. Opening hours are shorter, and they have got rid of professional librarians for volunteers. There’s a lot of anger out there.

A suggested reading list...

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

An account of the author’s formative years growing up in a village in the Cotswolds after the First World War, and an encounter with the young temptress Rosie Burdock.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

When her parents die, a spoilt young girl is sent to live with her uncle. There she discovers an overgrown secret garden that she and her new friends bring back to life.

Trouble on the Heath by Terry Jones

When Malcolm Thomas discovers his view of the heath will be blocked by an ugly building, he decides to take action. Violent gangsters and depressed town planners stand in his way. 

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

A dark comedy following the exploits of an eccentric aristocratic family in the inter-war period, and the narrator’s romantic adventures.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

After hearing that millions of Americans believe they had been abducted by aliens, Bryson decides to return to his home country. Before he goes, he documents a farewell tour of the island he loves, and writes a love letter to Britain. 

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