Using reading and libraries to improve mental health

16 November 2016

Rosie Walworth from The Reading Agency tells us about their Reading Well scheme for young people.

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Picture credit: The Reading Agency

In April 2016 The Reading Agency and Society of Chief Librarians launched an innovative new scheme that supports young people to understand and manage their mental health and emotional wellbeing. Reading Well for young people is a booklist of accredited high-quality reading about mental health, which is available in 93% of public library authorities in England.

The list of 35 titles provides 13 to 18 year olds with support and advice on common mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and stress, as well as difficult life experiences like bullying and exams. The books have all been chosen by young people and health professionals and endorsed by leading health organisations such as Public Health England and NHS England. Reading Well is evidence based and works within clinical guidelines. It is funded by Arts Council England and the Wellcome Trust.

The books

The Reading Well list includes a wide range of self-help and information titles, alongside memoir, graphic novels and fiction. It includes well-known novels The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, as well as popular non-fiction such as Mind Your Head by Juno Dawson, Blame My Brain: The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed by Nicola Morgan and The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs and WTFs?!!

Reading Well also recommends self-help guides such as Banish Your Body Image Thief and Breaking Free from OCD, and includes material for people with dyslexia and lower reading levels and different formats including e-books and audio books.

Health professionals, such as GPs or school nurses, can refer young people to the booklist. The titles are also available for anyone to borrow for free from the open shelves of their local library. Since the launch of the scheme in April 2016, loans of titles on the Reading Well list have increased by 263%.

Meeting real need

There is a pressing need for high-quality and accessible information about mental health and wellbeing for young people. Three young people in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition and half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14.[1] The proportion of 15-16 year olds reporting that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has also doubled in the last 30 years.[2]

Reading Well is helping to meet this challenge by providing an early intervention resource that can be used alongside other forms of treatment, or while someone is on a waiting list. For some people who pick up one of the books from their local library, it can also be the first step to seeking other sources of help and advice.

Created by and for young people

Young people were closely involved in developing Reading Well right from the start. Working with leading mental health charity YoungMinds, six young advisors were recruited to plan and deliver consultation workshops with their peers around the country. The workshops focused on everything from book selection to the design of supporting materials and marketing. Gaby, one of the young advisors, came up with the tagline for the scheme: ‘Find shelf help in your local library’.

Speaking at the launch of the scheme at the Wellcome Trust in April, three of the young advisors, Gaby, Bea and Dom, reflected on the value of the book list:

‘Books can provide a private, dependable and non-judgemental resource which we hope will provide other young people with the information, reassurance knowledge and courage to help themselves, their peers or seek further guidance from a professional.’ [3]

Reading Well and libraries

Libraries are ideal spaces for young people to access health information and advice. Seventy percent of 11 to 15 year olds visited a public library in 2015/16 [4] and research shows that people view libraries as welcoming, trusted and non-stigmatising spaces, perfect for the provision of health information and advice. [5] Libraries also offer a whole range of other services and activities to support health and wellbeing, from signposting to local health organisations to reading and support groups and volunteering opportunities. For instance, Reading Hack, The Reading Agency’s young people’s programme, inspires young people to become advocates for reading, complete reading activities and volunteer in their local library.

Libraries are promoting Reading Well through a host of creative events and online campaigns. Highlights include a ‘Lego Shelf Help’ video created by Suffolk Libraries, and a spoken word event at Walsall Libraries with poet Stephen Morrison-Burke. As part of the BBC’s Love to Read campaign earlier this month, a series of Reading Well author events were organised in libraries around the country. Authors including Juno Dawson, Sita Brahmachari and Alexia Casale discussed their books, ran workshops and were interviewed by Reading Hack volunteers.

Reading Well in schools and colleges

Reading Well is a great resource to help to raise awareness of mental health issues in schools, counter stigma and support the wellbeing and resilience of students. As well as quality endorsed reading, the scheme also signposts to other sources of support for students, such as talking with a school nurse or counsellor, or accessing accredited online resources.

Schools and colleges have begun to work in partnership with their local library services to promote the scheme. School nurses, counsellors, teachers and members of pastoral care teams can signpost students to the list, either in their school library or local public library.

In the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead library authority, Desborough College are working with their local library to deliver the scheme. They have ordered the supporting materials and some of the books, and taken out the remainder from their local library on long-term loan.

The University of Westminster are currently evaluating use of Reading Well in a secondary school in Hertfordshire and will publish their report in May 2017. PSHE resources created by some of the Reading Well authors will also be available in the new year to support understanding and awareness of mental health issues in schools and colleges.

Find out more

Email readingwell@readingagency.org.uk if you would like to find out more about how to use or deliver Reading Well or visit www.reading-well.org.uk/shelfhelp

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[1] http://www.youngminds.org.uk/about/whats_the_problem


[2] Changing Adolescence: Social Trends and Mental Health edited by Ann Hagell, Policy Press, 2012


[3] http://www.youngminds.org.uk/news/blog/3323_shelf-help_books_on_prescription


[4] DCMS Taking Part 2015/16 Annual Child Report, Statistical Release


[5] ‘The public library as therapeutic landscape: a qualitative case study’, Brewster, L. in Health and Place, 03/2014, 26, p. 94-99.