Monday, August 25, 2014

#MWF14 Words that heal - bibliotherapy with Jacinta Halloran and Susan McLaine

This post is written by Carol and Ellen
This session saw Jacinta Halloran (GP and author) and Susan McLaine (academic and Bibliotherapist) discuss the power of books and words to promote well-being.  As well as co-ordinating the State Library of Victoria’s Book Well program, Susan has initiated and developed a number of bibliotherapy  programs in Australia, in particular at Prague House working with the homeless or those at risk of becoming homeless, in aged care environments and in a justice rehabilitation unit working with offenders.  Jacinta has written two works of fiction and works part-time as a GP, often recommending books to patients as part of a treatment regime, as well as supporting the idea of medical schools introducing bibliotherapy into course work.

The concept of bibliotherapy is a broad one but it is not a new idea; libraries in the ancient world often had the words ‘medicine/healing for the soul’ inscribed at the entrance, reinforcing the idea that books and literature can help people in some way.  Up until the mid-20th century the focus was largely on assisting those with mental illness but it has now moved out into the wider community and is being used in areas such as schools, aged care and in the criminal justice system.  There is now modern evidence that reading, or being read to, relieves stress and has a powerful effect on the body as well as the mind. 

There was some discussion around the significance of fiction in the healing process or the use of the more didactic and direct approach of self-help works to help deal with fears and give insight into resolving problems.  The presenters agreed that there is value in both types of work; however both noted that it is fiction and often poetry that involves a more reflective, gentle approach which can have a profound effect.  Self-help books work through the giving of knowledge/information which is something found from without a person, whereas fictional works encourage the finding of wisdom, something that we find from within.

The value of literature as a way to heal is perhaps most important in the opportunity to develop empathy in the reader.  Author Joyce Carol Oates said ‘reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul’.  Also, reading out loud can put people into a more open state; while there is often soothing comfort in being read to,  there is also alert engagement of the imagination.  In a group setting, the text can open up shared experiences and discussion about difficult subjects that individuals might not normally share which aids in coming to terms with issues they face.   Susan McLaine related her experience of reading some of Nelson Mandela’s words while in prison to a group of offenders and how it invoked a powerful catharsis.

Susan also made the point that although the concept of bibliotherapy is based on reading, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that the person benefiting is reading the book themselves.  It can be used in areas of varying literacy levels.  She stated that the right words being read aloud can have the biggest effect.

Jacinta is the author of Dissection and Pilgrimage.    

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