“Well into Words’’ by Mr Barney Eden

Personal Reflections on the International Bibliotherapy Conference

Affiliated with and on behalf of the CLAHRC Prison Projects ‘Care to Older Prisoners’ and ‘Dementia Friendly Prisons’ – Dr Tine Van Bortel (P.I./ed.)

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.” – Franz Kafka

I fully commend and support Franz Kafka’s statement and for those seeking that axe, shouldn’t a decent library or bookshop suffice for the initiated, the curious? Surely if you can read you can access this world sculpted by words?

However, Bibliotherapy is for people for whom the words have become blurred, it is the use of fiction and poetry to support and increase positive outcomes for people with mental health and well-being issues. It can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, increase self-esteem, improve social skills and concentration and help some find solace in the soothing words or rhythm of a poem which can help calm inner turmoil. Bibliotherapy uses books, fiction, short stories, poetry, fragments, readings, quotes and texts to help people with mental health difficulties.

People with dementia have often spent a lifetime enjoying books and reading whether that be classic literature, modern poetry or articles of personal interest. When dementia becomes more advanced, people lose the ability to enjoy and understand traditional books. They seem full of small print, complex text and jumbled images, this can lead to further feelings of isolation and frustration. Bibliotherapy in this context could be seen as a navigator to point the way, untangle the words, help those suffering with dementia to see again the story they once knew so well.

Kirklees Libraries work in partnership with local health providers, charities and social care organisations, delivering sessions in settings such as acute psychiatric admission wards, dementia care wards, day centres, rehabilitation centres, alcohol and drug addiction centres and care homes. There is no formal referral process so people can self-refer or be referred by a health professional or carer.

The Well into Words conference was held at Huddersfield town hall on 29th October 2014. The positive effects of Bibliotherapy were set out and commented upon by James Nash (Writer/Poet), Dr Judith Hooper (Director of Public Health for Kirklees Council), Dr Helen Gregory (Social Scientist & Psychology Lecturer from the University of Brighton) and Stephen Dalton (Chief Executive of the Mental Health Network).

In care home settings where staff are enthusiastic about the use of books and are supported by good management there are positive benefits for residents, staff and visitors, particularly in light of the growing dementia problems globally which is expected to rise from 44,000,000 currently to 135,000,000 by 2050. Improved feelings of self-worth are reported deriving from the knowledge that, despite dementia, reading and books can still play a very meaningful and enjoyable part in everyday life. Equally, bibliotherapy can be used and is being used across various settings ranging from care in the community, to care homes, hospitals, the prison environment, and more.

At the conference there were quotes from Jeanette Winterson to underscore literature as a complete education in itself. Jeanette left home at sixteen because she was in love with a woman, her mother asked her: why be happy when you can be normal? From James Baldwin “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Beneficiaries of bibliotherapy also spoke candidly about their own experience of the sessions and how helpful, restorative and essential the programmes had been in helping them through difficult phases of their lives and provided a respite from loneliness and isolation.

The latter part of the Annual International Bibliotherapy Conference provided the opportunity to take part in some of the workshops where bibliotherapists demonstrated how the classes were run to engage and include the audience in finding their own voice for creative endeavours such as poetry and short story writing in order to create a positive sense in a client’s own abilities and develop an insight regarding their own behaviour and its impacts on others. In essence the event promoted a love of reading, sharing and understanding for those who were often marginalised by society.

“A novel is not an allegory… It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing!” – Azar Nafisi

  • Find more information about the conference here.
  • Find more information about ‘bibliotherapy” here.
Mr Barney Eden: barney.eden@yahoo.co.uk
Dr Tine Van Bortel: tv250@medschl.cam.ac.uk
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