Read and get cured

Mental disorders, including depression and mood swings, are an indication of frozen souls. Depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, and more than 300 million people are now living with depression, which rose 18 per cent between 2005 and 2015.
In Oman, nearly a quarter of pregnant women suffer from depression, a recent SQU study reveals, while a significant number of women live a life of depression aggravated by failed marriages. A 2010 study found as many as 2,200 depressed women in the Sultanate, up 20 per cent from the year before, and 65 per cent of them were struggling with failed marriages.
It’s not just women; depression is a cause of concern among males and children as well.
No worries, though; books and reading can offer a healing touch, as can art and drama, when they are used as a creative therapy. They can defreeze our souls.
While art and other creative therapies are offered at some mental health clinics and hospitals in Oman including Al Harub Medical Centre and Whispers of Serenity, reading hasn’t yet been explored here as an effective therapy for depression. Why, I wonder.
Bibliotherapy, a therapeutic approach that uses literature to support good mental health, is a versatile and cost-effective treatment option that can greatly support other therapies. It’s used the world over to tackle mild to moderate symptoms of several mood-related conditions.
Balancing the mind using literature had been prevalent in ancient Greece, where libraries were accorded the status of sacred places with curative powers. In the early nineteenth century, physicians like Benjamin Rush and Minson Galt II promoted the use of bibliotherapy as an intervention technique in rehabilitation and the treatment of mental health issues. During the two World Wars, bibliotherapy helped soldiers returning from the battlefront deal with both physical and emotional issues.
At the core of creative bibliotherapy is imaginative literature ranging from novels, short stories and poetry to plays and biographies, and their use to enhance psychological well-being.
Of special interest is poetry therapy: patients are encouraged to write and/or read poetry as a means of expressing and exploring thoughts, feelings and behaviour so as to achieve therapeutic change at the emotional level, and capacity building at the educational,
growth and community-building levels.
It was Aristotle who discussed the role of catharsis in effecting emotional cure, in Poetics. Poetry was used for mental health purposes in the early 19th century itself, and psychiatric patients penned poems for the Pennsylvania Hospital newspaper. Robert Haven Schauffler’s The Poetry Cure: A Pocket Medicine Chest of Verse (1925) offers poetic remedies for diverse mental conditions.
Therapists use carefully selected literary works to guide patients on a journey of self-discovery. Patients are asked to identify with a character, experience emotional catharsis and then gain sufficient insights into their own life experiences.
Reading knows no barriers; it can benefit one and all across age, gender and social status, effecting enhanced self-awareness and self-esteem, and the courage to face life’s challenges. Bibliotherapy has been found to be effective in treating not just depression, but mild alcohol abuse, anxiety, eating disorders, family related challenges, post-traumatic stress, grief and even communication issues.
But can the layman make any sense of the subtle meaning embedded in works of art and literature? Is it only for the intellectuals who are trained to decode them in multiple ways? Can depressed and imbalanced minds fathom the subtle meaning of art and poetry? Here, we may concur with Carl Jung, who noted that “meaning” need not necessarily be more than mere interpretation — an interpretation secreted into something by an intellect hungry for meaning. Period.
Meanwhile, despite having an increased awareness about the significant benefits of reading in terms of individual and social well-being and economic development, Oman, like most Arab nations, lacks a healthy reading culture. This is a paradox, especially in the context of an increasing number of Omani writers — including poets and bloggers of both genders — enriching the Sultanate’s intellectual domain.
Wider application of bibliotherapy across the Sultanate is sure to complement efforts to bring about a mass appreciation of literature, and establish reading as an essential aspect of the Omani cultural mélange.