Bibliotherapy: How Stories Can Help Guide the Therapeutic Process

Using Books for Healing

When dealing with personal issues such as anxiety and depression or coping with grief, sometimes it can be difficult to make sense of what is happening in your mind and body, especially if you don’t have any other experience to compare it to. Bibliotherapy aims to bridge this gap by using literature to help you improve your life by providing information, support, and guidance in the form of reading activities via books and stories.

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

What Bibliotherapy Involves

The concept of reading as a way to help facilitate the healing process and meet therapeutic goals is a common strategy found in many treatment approaches. However, what separates bibliotherapy from other established theories of psychotherapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, is the fact that a therapist will typically view bibliotherapy as a therapeutic approach, and therefore, use it as an adjunct part of the treatment process.

Since bibliotherapy is often used to support other forms of therapy, it is appropriate for both individual and group type situations, and for people of all ages. It’s common to see a therapist use stories when working with a younger client such as a child or adolescent.

When used in a group therapy setting, bibliotherapy allows participants to give and receive feedback about their interpretations of the literature and how it relates to their issues. It also helps improve communication and encourages more in-depth conversations and connections for participants. 

What to Expect

If bibliotherapy sounds like a good fit, you might be wondering how a therapist uses this tool during a counseling session. Sam Gladding, Ph.D., a professor at Wake Forest University's Online Master’s in Counseling and Human Services program who specializes in creativity in counseling describes bibliotherapy as a dynamic three-way interaction involving the use of a book, a counselor, and a client. “The counselor and the client consider problems or stress areas in the client's life; then the counselor ‘prescribes' a book or story for the client to read,” he says. 

Gladding does point out that it’s crucial that the book or story relates directly to the client's difficulty so that they identify with the protagonist in the novel or story. The counselor and client then come back together to talk about the way the protagonist handled his or her problems and the applicability of the solution or solutions in the book to the client's situation. 

And, licensed marriage and family therapist, Chad Perman, MA, LMFT of New Page Therapy agrees. "Typically, therapists will use bibliotherapy to assign clients specific books to read outside of the session," he says. This strategy, says Perman, can help facilitate empathy, insight, conversation, and self-growth.

Most therapists trained in bibliotherapy will have a list of books that relate to different issues. There are also several sites and databases online that give suggested or recommended titles based on a particular concern or mental health issues. An example is this list from Goodreads that is geared towards children and adolescents.

How Bibliotherapy Helps

Through the use of stories via fiction and nonfiction books, poetry, plays, short stories, and self-help materials, a therapist can help you gain a deeper understanding of the concerns that brought you into counseling sessions in the first place. 

Person Challenges

Bibliotherapy allows you to gain insight into the personal challenges you’re dealing with and helps you develop strategies to address the most concerning issues. It can also help promote problem solving, understanding, and self-awareness.

Receiving Benefits Outside of Treatment

Agreeing on a book to read in-between sessions gives the therapist a format for assigning homework outside of treatment. This can help deepen the meaning of a therapeutic session and facilitate greater learning. Another way a therapist can use bibliotherapy, says Gladding, is through a prevention model, which can help people learn ways of coping with life's challenges.

The Stories Provide Perspective

One of the more compelling reasons for using bibliotherapy is that it can help you see how other people, such as characters in a book, address and deal with similar issues. When you identify with a fictional or non-fictional character, especially on an emotional level, you're able to see that there are others who are also navigating and coping with personal struggles. 

To make this connection to a story even stronger, and help normalize the treatment process, a therapist can choose a book with a character who is seeking help for the interpersonal or intrapersonal challenges the patient is facing. 

Common Issues Treated With Bibliotherapy

While reading, in general, is beneficial to just about everybody, Perman says targeted bibliotherapy can be specifically useful for the following issues:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Relationship issues
  • Existential concerns such as isolation, meaninglessness, freedom, and death

Gladding adds that bibliotherapy may be especially relevant for issues that involve interpersonal relationships, such as managing anger or socially appropriate behavior and intrapersonal relationships, such as shyness or depression. “Issues regarding how to handle grief, rejection, or almost any of the negative ‘isms’ such as racism, sexism, ageism, may also be addressed through bibliotherapy,” says Gladding. 

When using bibliotherapy, a therapist might choose a self-help reference such as a workbook of calming exercises for a person with anxiety or other mental health concerns. Or, they may select a story with a fictional character that is dealing with the grief and trauma from losing a loved one for a client who recently experienced a death in the family. 

How to Find a Bibliotherapy Therapist

When searching for a therapist who incorporates bibliotherapy into their treatment sessions, the first place to look is online. You can search this specialty by Googling bibliotherapy + your city. For example, “bibliotherapy + Seattle.” 

In addition to training in bibliotherapy, make sure to check for other credentials and titles such as LMFT, LCSW, PsyD, Ph.D., psychotherapist, and licensed professional counselor when doing your homework. These credentials, along with many others, indicate that the person has the education and proper certifications or license to practice in your state. 

Perman says if you're looking for a therapist with more formal training in bibliotherapy, though, you can find a directory of providers on the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy website.

There are a number of professionals from many helping disciplines that belong to The National Association for Poetry Therapy, according to Gladding. He says this group uses the word "poetry" broadly to mean any written word. An excellent place to start is by looking at their website and publications. Also checking Google Scholar and other academic sources may yield scholars who are also counselors and can either help directly or recommend others who can. 

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Article Sources
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  • American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology: Bibliotherapy. 2018.

  • American Psychological Association. Different Approaches to Psychotherapy. 2019.

  • Gladding, S. Personal Interview. 2019.

  • Gualano MR, Bert F, Martorana M, Voglino G, Andriolo V, Thomas R, Gramaglia C, Zeppegno P, Siliquini R. The Long-Term Effects of Bibliotherapy in Depression Treatment: Systematic Review of Randomized Clinical Trials. Clinical Psychological Review. 2017;58:49-58. DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2017.09.006

  • Perman, C. Personal Interview. 2019.