As It Happens

Author Ann Cleeves funds 'bibliotherapy' service to help people heal with books

It's no secret that books have the power to pull readers into another world and escape reality, but one author is financing a "bibliotherapy" service to help people through their pain. 

Cleeves plans to finance the work of 2 bibliotherapists in northeast England

British crime novelist Ann Cleeves is launching a 'bibliotherapy' service in the U.K. (Submitted by Ann Cleeves)

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It's no secret that books have the power to pull readers into another world and escape reality, but one author is helping to create a "bibliotherapy" service to help people through their pain. 

British crime author Ann Cleeves is financing the work of two bibliotherapists in northeast England who will connect people with books to help them with their mental health or chronic pain. 

"I think that some people have never got the hang of reading for pleasure. The places where our scheme will be operating [are] some of the more deprived areas," Cleeves told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It sounds a bit patronizing, but we're hoping it will give people the opportunity to come across books as something that are fun and escapist if necessary, or challenging if that's what they're looking for. They might not have done that before. They might have come across books just as something that's a bit of a drag.... So we're looking to give people a different perspective."

Prescription reading 

The therapy service will be set up in five townships, including her own Northumberland, through the U.K.'s National Healthcare Service and the country's social prescribing system, which connects people to alternative treatment programs.

General practitioners, nurses and other primary care professionals will be able to refer people to bibliotherapy if they are struggling with chronic pain, anxiety, stress, depression or loneliness. 

Like a reading coach, the bibliotherapist will provide friendship and a listening ear. Readers will describe what they need from a story and get access to books, librarians and other readers.

"If it's escapist romance … short bits of poetry … or a cracking, pacey thriller that just carries you along so that for a few pages you can forget your problems, that's wonderful," Cleeves said.

It certainly worked wonders for me when I've been just that low or fed up or miserable. Just finding somewhere else to go in a book is a great solace.- Ann Cleeves, author 

Cleeves says two universities are set to study the initiative during its pilot year to evaluate whether bibliotherapy works as an alternative treatment to medication, and explore the different ways people can access it.

How book therapy helped Cleeves

The author was in Yorkshire 15 years ago when she herself found comfort in a bibliotherapy project.

She was working for Kirklee Libraries when chief librarian Catherine Morris came up with the idea to hire three therapists from general physician practices to help patients with chronic pain and depression, according to an article Cleeves wrote in the Guardian

Cleeves says she was in need of an escape of her own around that time and had found it books. 

"I think it certainly worked wonders for me when I've been just that low or fed up or miserable. Just finding somewhere else to go in a book is a great solace," she said.

The right book can be a huge help in trying times, says Cleeves. (Fotyma/Shutterstock)

Her journey with bibliotherapy goes back to the time she wrote the first novel of her celebrated Vera Stanhope detective series. 

Her husband, she says, was bipolar and undiagnosed, and he was going through a period of intense stress at work.

"He just wasn't himself. He was poorly. He was restless. He made a lot of demands on the whole family, not because he wanted to, but because he was ill," she said.

"My escape at that time very much was writing and reading. I was writing the first Vera Stanhope novel. I remember it very well. Walking through the [Northumberland] countryside with him, my lovely husband, and just losing myself in the story that I was writing was helping, but also losing myself with the books that I was reading was a terrific help."

The Vera Stanhope series turns 21 this year as the ninth detective novel gets published in the U.K. 

"It seemed a good time to be thinking about putting something back, giving something back to the region where [Vera] grew up and where I've been made to feel so welcome," Cleeves said. 

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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