Have you ever picked up a book during a difficult time, in hopes of being transported to a different place? In hopes of feeling safe and comforted? In hopes of returning to the present with a new and improved mentality? If you haven’t, you should. Because time and time again, literature grants these wishes—and that’s exactly why it’s the backbone of a therapeutic approach called bibliotherapy.

Bibliotherapy uses literature to support and sustain good mental health. It is a flexible, cost-effective, and adaptable approach to therapy and is used primarily for treating symptoms of mood disorders and mood-related conditions. Furthermore, bibliotherapy can be incorporated into both individual and group therapy and benefits people of all ages: children, adolescents, and adults.

History and Development

Many researchers and mental health professionals have acknowledged the therapeutic effects of journaling, writing, storytelling, and reading—but ancient Greece was the first to recognize and capitalize on the use of literature, as their libraries were held as sacred places with magical healing powers. Then, in the early 19th century, famous physicians expanded on the idea and created bibliotherapy as an effective treatment for mental health issues.

Still, bibliotherapy wasn’t formally recognized as a treatment method for mental health until 1941 in Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary. From there, it continued to grow and transform, until it was officially defined by The American Library Association in 1966. Three years later, additional therapy approaches began to snowball off of bibliotherapy’s basis: that people are influenced and guided by storybook characters. Poetry therapy emerged, as did creative bibliotherapy, and several other therapeutic approaches. In today’s present, a multitude of people (teachers, mental health professionals, parents) use bibliotherapy to help students, patients, kids, and anybody else who might benefit from some self-improvement.

Approaches to Bibliotherapy

As previously mentioned, bibliotherapy uses literature as a tool to support good mental health. However, there are various approaches to this therapeutic method, which are detailed below:

  • Developmental bibliotherapy: This form of bibliotherapy is used to educate individuals on major developmental milestones such as puberty. It is typically employed by educators (such as health teachers), as well as parents to teach kids about their health and development.
  • Prescriptive bibliotherapy: Prescriptive bibliotherapy, also known as self-help, uses reading materials (such as self-help books, which are often interactive) to tackle mental health topics like depression and anxiety. Mental health professionals often incorporate this technique into their practice; for example, they might recommend a self-help book on surviving tough breakups to a client who just got out of a serious relationship.
  • Creative bibliotherapy: This approach to bibliotherapy focuses on imaginative literature—from books to short stories, plays, and poetry—to boost wellbeing and improve mental health. Therapists often use creative bibliotherapy as a tool in guiding their clients to a place of happiness and satisfaction. It is most beneficial in helping those in identity crisis discover or rediscover themselves.

Who Does It Help?

Bibliotherapy can benefit a wide range of individuals; however, it is not meant to serve as a primary form of treatment for seriously mental health issues. Instead, it should accompany other methods, like cognitive behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy. Bibliotherapy may serve as an effective first, third, or last step in healing—this is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Additionally, literature proves to help individuals of all ages and backgrounds; it doesn’t require the diagnosis of a mental illness or any sign of emotional distress. For example, reading and journaling have proven to increase self-awareness, decrease stress, and boost overall wellbeing. Furthermore, self-help books (which are often at the core of bibliotherapy) often teach effective communication skills, tips for dealing with negative emotions, and ultimately helps individuals thrive in life.

Who Offers Bibliotherapy?

While many mental health professionals use bibliotherapy as a tool in therapy, there are official standards for this practice, set by The International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy (IFBPT). Those who wish to become officially certified can do so through IFBPT. The credentials are as follows:

  • Certified Applied Poetry Facilitator (CAPF): One must have a bachelor’s degree and experience in psychology. CAPFs typically work with people who aren’t suffering from serious mental health issues, but instead are trained to analyze and identify individuals who may benefit from mental health help.
  • Certified Poetry Therapist (CPT): These individuals must have post-graduate mental health training. CPTs are trained to work one-on-one with individuals who have mental health issues/concerns.
  • Registered Poetry Therapist (PTR): A PTR must also have post-graduate mental health training; however, they must also complete advanced coursework to achieve the official credential. Like CPTs, they typically work directly with individuals who have mental health issues/concerns.