Reading helps. That’s reading as in books, not Reading the football team.
I know this not just because reading helped me to understand what was happening to me when I had a breakdown three years ago. But because dozens of fellow sufferers have told me the same thing: books help you make sense of the most baffling of illnesses.
In fact, the medical profession already knows this. Psychiatrists and psychotherapists have told me that they regularly recommend books to their patients, depending on the nature and severity of their condition. It gets trickier of course when people are too ill to read, as I was for several months, but even then there are books like Matthew Johnstone’s wonderfully illustrated “I had a Black Dog” that can soothe even the weariest of eyes.
So a reading list makes good sense – on a number of levels. Firstly, because a great many first-time sufferers might not suspect that relief can come from books as well as boxes of pills. Secondly, because it gives GP another option other than just reaching for the prescription pad. Availability of talking therapies on the NHS is still woefully patchy; there is concern that GPs end up overprescribing anti-depressants as a result.
But the reading list they are suggesting for GPs to prescribe to patients seems quite narrow. Self-help books come in many guises. Depression is not something, in my experience, that can be “overcome” in “five easy steps”. I wonder if memoir (and there are no shortage of titles out there – see below) and even fiction (Silvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Sarah Waters’ Affinity) might not be equally as helpful. The three titles listed to help sufferers cope with depression all centre on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which may help resolve some of the more straightforward cases of depression and anxiety but won’t work for everyone.
GPs might equally usefully steer patients towards the healthtalk websites, where fellow sufferers tell their stories. It’s a powerful moment of insight and relief to understand that you are not alone, that others have been through what you are enduring — and survived to tell the tale.
We must also be careful that prescribing a book doesn’t take the place of proper therapy. People with mental health problems really need specialists to help them work through what is wrong with them. Until we do better at providing this (and I’ll warn you now – it’s not cheap) we won’t get to grips with the fastest-growing illness of our times.
In fact, it may make more sense to prescribe reading lists to the healthy, not the sick.
Prevention is better than the cure, particularly when it comes to mental health. Understanding why some people like me fall over will help people like you avoid doing so.
My own reading list? Tim Cantopher’s Depressive Illness: Curse of the Strong. Sally Brampton’s Shoot the damn dog. And Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain.
A version of this blogpost appears on the Guardian’s website at http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/31/self-help-books-many-guises