LonePack Conversations- The Alternative Therapy Series: Bibliotherapy ft. Bijal Shah

While reading a book or a quote, have you ever felt like it best put into words exactly what you’re feeling? That’s the power of literature – it offers us a connection and intimacy that is unique to the medium.

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Valerie – Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’ll be exploring bibliotherapy with Bijal Shah, a bibliotherapist, counsellor, author and poet. She is the founder of Book Therapy – a book curation service that offers bibliotherapy, literary curation, personalized reading services and bibliotherapy training. 

Hey, Bijal!

Bijal – Hey, Valerie. How are you?

Valerie –  I’m doing well. It’s so great to be talking to you today.

Bijal –  Thank you, it’s such a pleasure to be here!

Valerie –  Could you tell us how reading books helps with mental wellness? 

Bijal –  Sure. I often see literature as a mirror, as a tool that reflects what we’re feeling because when we read, we read through our own lens. We filter things out through our own experiences. It’s a great self awareness tool and I’d say that the power lies in the relationship that’s formed between a reader and writing, whether that’s narrative or poetry or essay, and the reflections of the thoughts, feelings or observations that the writing provokes. I always suggest a daily journaling practice, capturing exactly what the literature is bringing out for us, so you’re using books as a prompt and that can be used as a self-care structure to you or it can be in your counselling or psychotherapy sessions or whichever mental health professional you’re working with. Books can really help facilitate any sort of mental health struggle that you’re going through, help you process your feelings, find coping strategies and just help to process emotions and release those because that’s so important that reading should help express, and books essentially act as a medium for that. 

Valerie –  When you were talking about this, you told us that one aspect of reading that stands out is that you’re reading through your own lens – it’s your narrative and about what you pick up from a book that you’re reading. You talk about journaling, you talk about how you prefer that someone journals or take the help of a mental health counselor, while reading.

Taking up on that, what is Bibliotherapy? How does it work as an alternative form of mental health therapy? 

Bijal – Sure. Here at Book Therapy, we pretty much define Bibliotherapy as a form of Art Therapy that focuses on the power of stories to heal, so really leveraging off literature to process emotions, using it as a prompt for self-awareness and connection. The basis of Bibliotherapy is essentially two-fold: It focuses on the ability of the Bibliotherapist or mental health professional to prescribe the right text for each individual as there’s no size that fits all, so it depends on the reader’s personal preference. It’s also imperative that the reader is willing to explore the value of literary thinking and seeking meaning within the literary language through self-reflection and journaling and/or discussion with a trained therapist or counsellor. 

In terms of the actual Bibliotherapy process, there are essentially three stages to it – 

The first stage is that the reader should identify and connect with the text or the character, if it’s fiction. The text itself needs to help the reader connect with the emotions and allow them to process it. This is what I call a cathartic response. Also, literature should provide insight into the individual’s own situation based on the issues faced by the character or discussed in the text. Thirdly, allow the reader to consolidate their learnings and lessons in a therapeutic fashion. I would say that those are the three stages of Bibliotherapy and you could use those as self-prescription or in a session with a counsellor or therapist. 

Sessions span both fictional and non-fictional literature, across a variety of mediums. You could read novels or poetry or tragedies or essays – all of these things connect with us in different ways and the actual magic happens in that process of reading and the interpretation and reflection because it’s all being framed from the perspective of the reader and this is where you start to work with what the literature is bringing up for them. 

Valerie –  Bijal, you were telling us about the magic of literature. What’s your relationship with books like? 

Bijal –  I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya so I spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years there and there was only one community library or book store but I found myself hanging out there a lot. I’ve always found it a source of comfort and solace. Living in Nairobi was very much like living in lockdown like we are right now! So in terms of entertainment, there’s not a lot and you find yourself doing a lot of reading the whole time. I’ve always found books very comforting and healing, and I never really picked up on the concept of Bibliotherapy until I was in my own counselling training and I had to see a therapist as a part of that. These were weekly sessions and I found that in between, you might have all sorts of issues or things going on as you’re waiting to see the therapist and it’s in that space in time that I felt like literature really anchored and supported me because I could reflect on what I was feeling. I felt like literature was really allowing me to leverage therapy outside of my therapy sessions. 

Valerie –  What was the inspiration behind founding Book Therapy and making this personalized curation service for people?

Bijal – There’s been a lot of research going on over the years by University students and PhD students and whilst there’s a lot of research, it’s never really hit the mainstream market and lots of counsellors and therapists do prescribe literature as a part of their sessions. What I wanted to do was really focus on Bibliotherapy itself and bring all my learnings together. I really just wanted to bring together everything that we need in terms of techniques and tools to use literature, and that could be like creative writing, unstructured writing.

Reading and writing really go hand-in-hand. You’re reading but you’ve also got to do a bit of reflection and that normally comes from writing. If you’re averse to that then you can record a voice note to yourself! That’s what I call audio journaling and it’s also very important to get those feelings out and express the things that you’re going through and capture them and that is healing in itself. A lot of the work that I do involves reading and then writing. Reading for fun is great but if you want to also use it as a therapeutic tool, then this is how you can make the most out of your reading.

I felt a real urge to bring what I had learnt through my training and my own personal experience with literature to other people and that’s when I actually launched Book Therapy. I found that sometimes you want the Bibliotherapy sessions but sometimes you just want a prescribed reading list so I would also curate reading lists based on what people tell me they’re looking for. I do it for therapy but I also do it for personal interest because I have people telling me they’re avid readers and ask me to prescribe something to them. I now have this feedback loop of what’s working, what’s not and it helps me hopefully tailor something that can be really useful and valuable to my clients.

Valerie –  It’s so nice that you’ve said that when someone’s going through something, you’re providing them a service by prescribing them books that might help them express or understand what they’re going through better. It’s such a great service that you’re doing for people.

Bijal – Thank you! Similar to what LonePack’s doing, it’s creating ways of helping people find ways to cope when they’re going through difficult times. Especially now during the Pandemic, people are really struggling with mental health and sometimes it’s not easy to get access to a counsellor. Sometimes it’s hard to find a counsellor that you connect with. I think we have books and literature that offers us a lot of choice and variety, and it’s still a form of connection. It’s not connection with a person but you’re connecting with something, with a character or with the author, and it’s really satisfying our human need for connection because a lot of issues start when you’re feeling disconnected with either parts of yourself or with others. So it’s really sort of bridging that gap and I always say that it’s a form of meditation, especially if you’re reading mindfully, it’s giving your brain a break, mental space to breathe!

Valerie –  How have you found Bibliotherapy play a role in youth mental health in particular?

Bijal – When I think of youth mental health, there are two branches – there’s children’s Bibliotherapy and then there’s teenage Bibliotherapy, and I think each is quite different. Children’s Bibliotherapy is sometimes more complicated because children are young and they don’t always have a language to express what they’re feeling but picture books and Play Therapy can be hugely helpful in helping children express themselves and also process what they’re going through because children really need us to help them regulate their emotions and they need to learn how to do that. Literature and Play Therapy are such wonderful ways to teach them how to do that. 

During the teenage years, literature is very much a developmental tool so I call it developmental Bibliotherapy where they’re learning about the world through literature because there are so many things that are never really touched upon in class. For example, you might get taught about sex education to know how someone becomes pregnant but you don’t talk about the other things around that like actually exploring your sexuality or your needs. None of that is addressed in a classroom. I think literature can be a way to help you explore your identity, help you explore your sexual needs, beyond just the basic things that you’re told. I really think that developmental Bibliotherapy can really help people with that. Even if it’s cognitive and social development, being assertive, dealing with anxiety, all of these things are actually important lessons for teenagers which are not often focused on, in the academic setting. I think mental health literature is just the perfect bridge. Also, I don’t see many youth going to see counselors whereas I do see lots of people read. Teenage is the time where you actually get to read before you go to University where you just stop reading. We should help teenagers make the most of this time in developmental Bibliotherapy, and that could also include a lot of young-adult literature.

Valerie –  Bijal, you’ve given us an insight into how reading books can impact our mental health. You’ve told us what Bibliotherapy is. Can you now tell us the steps of how one can develop a good reading habit and include literature as a part of one’s self-care?

Bijal – I probably want to leave you with a few things that I think are super helpful. Practice mindful reading. Sure, reading for escapism is fine and there’s a place and space where you need to do that but if you’re reading from a therapeutic perspective, practice mindful reading. Ask questions about what the literature is doing for you, what feelings it’s bringing out, is there something that it’s nudging or prompting? Create an intention habit, a consistent time to read every day. Reading is like going to the gym. If you don’t do it everyday, you’re just going to be a holiday reader. If you want to get out of that holiday reader mode, you have to do it daily and create a space where you do it, like a designated reading space because all of these things bring consistency and consistency helps you build that into your daily routine. I’d also say keep a book journal. Every time you’re reading, write about it. Reflect on what it’s doing for you. I would also say find an accountability partner, a reading partner. Someone you read with or you could be reading the same book at your own time but coming together to discuss it because that is what’s going to get you reading and finishing the book. I’ve found that when you have a reading partner, you’re more likely to be committed to it, similar to a book club. I would say all of those things are great in terms of building better reading habits. 

Valerie – That’s so nice. Bijal, is journaling something you do regularly? In everything that you’ve talked about, when you speak about reading, you always also added the importance of journaling and how it enhances the whole reading process.

Bijal – Absolutely, yes. I do it pretty much every day. I’m always writing something because I love writing! Whether it’s quickly jotting down a poem or writing down how I’m feeling that way or something that I’ve noticed about myself, I will just write that down and that just immediately creates a sense of relief because I feel like I’ve taken it out of myself and I’ve put it on paper. It’s really cathartic and healing, I can’t recommend it enough. 

Valerie – Bijal, thank you so much for talking to us today and giving us an insight into what Bibliotherapy is. We’ve learnt from you that books can be comforting and healing. We’ve learnt that we read books so that we can connect with the text and through the text, we can connect with characters, connect with your own emotions, dig into something and realise and identify things that maybe you were not comfortable with when it comes to your own self. That you can take those learnings and consolidate them. We’ve also learnt that there are different forms of literature that can help us best connect with our emotions. Thank you for the tips that you gave us on how we can use reading personally and develop reading habits in order to take care of ourselves and develop our mental wellbeing. Thank you so much.

Bijal – Thank you, Valerie. It’s been such a pleasure to be here and I do hope that it’s helpful and that it helps somebody in a meaningful way. I think that’s the best reward for this.

Valerie – Thank you, Bijal.

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