“Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself” – Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive, on how reading helped him through a crippling period of depression.
At Hook Research, we understand the importance of books and the power of stories. Reading has been linked to improved feelings of wellbeing and a reduction in symptoms of depression. As mental health continues to be pushed up the agenda, we’ve begun to see an increase in the popularity of mental health memoirs. Picture books and memoirs are now becoming a key medium for breaking down the mental health stigma, providing people with tools to better understand mental health conditions.
The power of stories and the popularity of mental health memoirs
Books allow the reader to see their own story through the telling of others’, and are less intimidating than sitting in front of a therapist.
Support on the NHS is limited and private care is costly and arguably doesn’t reach out to the most vulnerable groups. Even if you overcome these hurdles, there’s still the societal barrier around having therapy – it’s not something you talk about over dinner. Yet a book is affordable, sociably acceptable and opens up conversations – whereas telling a friend you’re seeing a therapist, unfortunately might do the opposite.
The power of stories and the popularity of mental health memoirs has seen well known individuals step forward to talk of their personal struggles. Ruby Wax has two books, Sane New World and Frazzled, under her belt. Her funny and candid accounts break the stiff upper lip around mental health, bringing about frank conversations among readers. Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon, talks openly about living with OCD and bulimia. With both humour and honesty, the memoir is a relief for those going through the same experiences and an education for those who are not.
Another area where books are making progress is with men’s mental health.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 and there have been recent campaigns working to get men talking, such as #UOKMATE? and CALM. One of the main influencers in this area is Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, a book that has made every bestseller list while its author leads the way with advocating better mental health for men. Alistair Campbell’s The Happy Depressive, is another that breaks down the expectations of the strong, emotionless man and reveals that even those in power, can have their own challenges.
Books are bringing people together
At the Mental Wealth Festival, Professor Barry Carpenter openly discussed how a book club helps his daughter with down syndrome beat her loneliness since moving out of the parental home. For her, the club is about more than just books, as it brings her a sense of social independence in a safe and friendly environment.
Inspired by the confessional-like outbursts from audience members and readers, Ruby Wax has established her Frazzle cafes. These cafes offer another safe space for people to come together and have the opportunity to talk about mental health, without judgement.
Books Beyond Words – “a provider of books, services and training for people who find pictures easier to understand than words” – takes another approach. Their picture books are designed to help those with learning difficulties make sense of major life events, such as bereavement and falling in love. Through the power of stories, these books allow the reader and their carer to discuss important topics in a way that’s accessible, giving the reader the opportunity to interpret their version of the events and communicate it to others.
Similarly, M is for Autism is a book about a young girl living with autism and the anxiety that comes with it. The first in a series, the book is written by the girls from Limspfield Grange, who were frustrated by the lack of literacy for girls with autism and wanted something to help guide them through the challenges of teenage life. Writing the story empowered not only the writers, but thousands of young teenage girls around the country and, subsequently, the world as well.
Books can also bring people together online, with Matt Haig taking an active role on Twitter, tirelessly campaigning for more support for men while simultaneously engaging with his followers. His continuous tweets on mental health create conversations and interaction on a once taboo subject among males.
Whilst we still have many hurdles ahead of us, it seems that the power of stories are bringing people together and paving the way for healthier attitudes, honest conversations and better mental health.
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