Yvette Huddleston: Why libraries can boost our mental health

Writer Matt Haig has spoken about how books have helped him in the past.
Writer Matt Haig has spoken about how books have helped him in the past.
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Words – they can change your life, and in some cases save it.

Next week is National Libraries Week, running from October 8-13, and this year the focus of the week is on wellbeing. Libraries around the country will be showcasing how they bring communities together, help alleviate loneliness, provide a space to read, be quiet and creative and support people with their mental health.

Reading, especially fiction, can make a huge, positive difference to someone’s state of mind, something which Sheffield-born writer and mental health campaigner Matt Haig has eloquently communicated. In his 2015 memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, he wrote about his descent into depression in his twenties and he has since spoken about how reading helped him to get through some of his darkest depressive periods. And it doesn’t have to be a whole book – a short poem or even a line or two of literary wisdom or clarity can be just as effective. As he tweeted this week: “Love an inspirational quote. People get snobby about them but I don’t know why. When I had deep depression I couldn’t read novels, but I could read lines from my old Collins book of quotations. A succinct line of real optimism is literary Prozac. It can reframe your perspective.”

According to the Libraries Week website, research shows that those who use libraries are happier and have more of a sense of purpose in life than those who don’t use libraries. Other research has calculated that engagement with libraries results in good all-round health and that it saves the NHS just under £30 million a year. Research also indicates that reading fiction increases levels of empathy and can help improve relationships with others. In other words, immersing yourself in a novel allows you to imagine what it is like to be someone else. As that admirable fictional character Atticus Finch once said: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It can also help people to feel less lonely – to realise that they are not alone in experiencing a particular emotion or event. And, most signifcantly, libraries make books accessible to the poorest in our society. Reading for pleasure has been linked to a reduction in stress and 76 per cent of adults report that reading improves their life and makes them feel good. Sadly, the facts and figures in relation to library closures and funding cuts are not so uplifting.

According to the latest statistics available (from December 2017) – during 2016/17 total expenditure on council-run libraries fell by £66m and there are 105 fewer libraries. As more and more people recognise the benefit and value of books, reading, and the arts in general, wouldn’t it be great if our Government did too?