Healing Childhood Mental Health through Bibliotherapy

Mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder can affect a student’s ability to concentrate, form friendships, and thrive in the classroom, among many other things. Educators and school counselors often provide Social and Emotional Learning programs (SEL) in order to help these students, as well as school-based therapeutic support groups. Even in these forums, however, getting teenagers to speak about their problems can be challenging, especially when they feel like outsiders and worry about judgment from their peers. This is where bibliotherapy comes in. 

Anita Cellucci, a school librarian at Westborough High School in Westborough, MA, developed this alternative way to support struggling students at her school. Cellucci and school counselor Ceil Parteleno began a six-week group specifically targeted to students who had experienced trauma and loss. Drawing upon Cellucci’s knowledge and love of books and Parteleno’s expertise as a counselor, the pair began a unique school-based support group, using storytelling and literature as a way to help kids understand and cope with their emotions. This kind of support is known as bibliotherapy.

According to Dr. Liz Brewster, a bibliotherapy researcher and lecturer at Lancaster Medical School, bibliotherapy can help people understand and process difficult emotions. “When they recognize their thoughts and emotions in a work of fiction, or in a self-help book, it can help people to feel less alone,” says Brewster.

For adolescents struggling with depression, anxiety and grief, the use of books as a therapeutic tool can be invaluable. Teens often get stuck in their narratives, believing that the fictional stories they tell themselves are accurate. Because of the insecurities that adolescence can bring, it’s easy for them to assume that being excluded from a peer’s birthday party or being left out of a group text exchange is a personal affront. Social media often fuels these beliefs, which can take a toll on their mental health. Shame and stigma often prevent students from speaking out and seeking the emotional support they need.

But reading about a fictional character’s experiences can normalize those feelings and give teens the courage to open up about their own struggles. During each meeting, Cellucci leads a discussion about a book, inviting students to share their impressions. Group members can also reflect privately about the readings by writing in their journals. The book Buddha’s Brain offers practical mindfulness tips centered around kindness, empathy, love, and self-care. Cellucci uses the core concepts of Buddhism outlined in the book to help students share their personal stories, such as times when they needed love and care, as well as moments when they offered this support to others.

Cellucci also uses fiction books with individual students. Books like Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely help students talk about sensitive topics like race, privilege, and human angst. “Many of the students who read Please Ignore Vera Dietz relate to Vera, the main character. The character helps them grapple with whether or not our family history determines our destiny,” says Cellucci.

At Westborough High School’s bibliotherapy group, each meeting follows a structured format in order to create a safe forum for the participants. The group begins with an activity like yoga or a mindful breathing exercise to help students get into a safe headspace for tackling trauma. Then, Parteleno teaches the students cognitive tools, like reality testing and perspective taking, which helps them to challenge and cope with any distressing and worrisome thoughts. For example, if a worried student believes her friend is ignoring her, Parteleno might gently challenge the belief, asking a question like, “What evidence do you have that this is true?” followed by “Is there any other reason that could explain your friend’s behavior?”

Students also practice activities based on Dialectical-Behavior Therapy (DBT), which teaches kids how to manage intense emotions. During the group, Parteleno leads the students through mindfulness and cognitive roleplay exercises, acting out challenging real-life scenarios that they have faced during the week. For example, teens in the loss group role-played how to talk with friends and family members about their grief. While studies show DBT is an effective form of psychotherapy, especially for young adults, bibliotherapy is a newer mental health intervention for youth. Research suggests it can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, especially among adolescents.

For some students, talking about their suffering can feel vulnerable, but hearing about the experience of loss from a trusted adult can also help students feel more secure about sharing. During one group meeting, Cellucci spoke about the death of her grandmother and how the loss affected her as a child. For many of the students, hearing these stories creates a sense of solace, which facilitates the healing process. Cellucci says the students look forward to the group because it’s a time of quiet reflection and personal connection in a safe and trusted space. Students who experience the therapeutic benefits of bibliotherapy also begin to see the library as a haven where they can find books to help them understand their feelings.

If you’re starting your own bibliotherapy group or would like to explore some aspects of bibliotherapy on your own, here are some recommendations for books you could start with:
Mosquitoland by David Arnold
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian
Hold Still by Nina LaCour
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

For more options, check out our previous articles on books for teens that speak candidly about mental health by clicking here and here.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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