Bibliotherapy is an approach to therapy which utilizes books as a therapeutic tool. People have long believed that reading can have emotional benefits and in the 20th century, numerous researchers conducted studies on reading and the role of reading in therapy and found that books could indeed be used as part of a therapy program. There are a number of approaches to bibliotherapy, and there is some debate about where it can be applied appropriately.
Reading a book is not a substitute for meeting with a counselor, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional. However, bibliotherapy can be incorporated into a treatment program and can even become an integral part of treatment. Books are carefully selected for patients, with the clinician seeking out a book which will have relevance to the situation the patient is in. The patient reads the book, and discusses it in sessions.
Patients sometimes benefit from seeing people in similar situations. Bibliotherapy also provides a mode of expression, as patients can talk about how they responded to the book and how the book made them feel. Books can assist patients with identifying and naming the issues they are facing and they can facilitate conversations which might otherwise be difficult to have. This form of therapy can also be combined with writing therapy, in which patients journal or engage in other writing activities as part of their treatment.
Engaging with the written word may help patients on a number of levels. Some people simply enjoy the temporary escape which a book offers and many benefit from reading texts which also provide emotional support. Reading also provides cognitive benefits which can be helpful for some patients. When a book is well chosen, someone may feel more relaxed and happier after completing it. When books are used in therapy, it is important for the therapist to be familiar with the text, and to choose it with a specific patient in mind; handing out copies of the same book to every patient, for example, is not bibliotherapy.
Aside from clinical bibliotherapy discussed above, some people also practice developmental bibliotherapy. Parents, teachers, and other people who work with children may use books to promote healthy development. Books can be selected on the basis of having meaningful applications for a child, such as showing a child that other people struggled with tasks like math in their childhood as well. Some psychotherapists believe that only they are qualified to select books for therapeutic purposes, and have raised concerns that children who need professional counseling may not receive it if parents and teachers mistakenly believe that reading a book is sufficient to address a problem. Others argue that when a book is chosen well, it can be highly beneficial even without the attention of a professional.