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Improving mental health with literature

Author: Sir Jonathan Bate
19 July 2017

Sir Jonathan Bate, a biographer, critic, broadcaster and Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, is the co-founder of ReLit, an initiative that promotes reading as a way to improve mental health. Here he explains what bibliotherapy is.

ReLit is the foundation for bibliotherapy: the complementary treatment of stress, anxiety and other conditions through slow reading. The foundation is the brainchild of the well-known authors Paula Byrne and myself, who believe that attentive immersion in great literature can relieve, restore and reinvigorate the human mind.

Over the past two years, ReLit has been spreading its message about the therapeutic value of reading in a variety of ways. There have been bibliotherapy workshops in schools and prisons, and in collaboration with the University of Warwick and FutureLearn, there have been three runs, with over 40,000 participants, of a free online course entitled “Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing.”

This six-week course looks at various challenges and life experiences – including stress, trauma and bereavement – through the lens of great literature, inviting its learners to explore how poems, plays and novels can help us to understand and cope with times of deep emotional strain. The course features interviews with a mix of doctors and people who have turned to poetry in difficult times, including such authors as Melvyn Bragg, Stephen Fry and Mark Haddon.

ReLit was founded on the belief that a poem can offer an oasis of calm in our frenetic world. Well chosen words, contemplated slowly, can give shape and articulation to a moment of serenity, and in so doing the reader’s spirit can be ‘relit’.

This idea was tested in a randomized controlled trial, conducted by ReLit in conjunction with the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. The group given a nightly poem reported significant improvements in mental health and wellbeing, in comparison with the placebo group.

In 2016, ReLit published the poetry anthology Stressed, Unstressed: Classic Poems to Ease the Mind. Put together by poetry specialists and medical professionals, the anthology contains a wide selection of poems, from enduring classics to forgotten gems, intended to offer solace and support during life’s most stressful and difficult times. Now available in hardcover, paperback and as an eBook, Stressed, Unstressed has sold over 10,000 copies. The proceeds from the sale of the anthology have been used to support the future work of ReLit.

The foundation would now like to offer a free hardback copy of Stressed, Unstressed to every hospice in the UK. In order to receive one contact Elizabeth Palfreman

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