Linking Reading and Wellbeing

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Key Audience

Managers within health services (initially used within Birmingham)


A seminar in November 2008 presented:

- the underlying ideas and practical examples of using reading to improve wellbeing.

- outlining the components of a menu of activities that could be drawn on re reading and wellbeing (see below).

- information on what was already in place (but in relatively fragmentary ways) within Birmingham.

- to motivate the managers/budget holders/commissioners within health trusts to identify ways of securing health gains via focused reading developments.

Evidence of impact

> some new pilot activity immediately put in place.

> follow up meetings arranged to decide on service developments from January 2009 onwards.

> briefing sheet drawn up, for wider circulation, on the links between adult learning (using reading as an example) and improved health outcomes (see below).


Initiated by Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership on behalf of the network of agencies linking together throughout the National Year of Reading.

Contact details for the project



Reading and wellbeing: A possible menu for Birmingham

Access to books/text

 book stocks in health venues, to read on site or to borrow

 access to defined sets of texts (including audio texts/onscreen texts) linked to aspects of health or lifestyle

 donations of books; unwanted stock from libraries; purposefully purchased books

 health-base acts as an outpost of local lending library. Stock refreshed monthly by librarian; bookings in/out done by staff at the base

 stocks of easier-to-get-through books/texts e.g. Quick Reads

 simple, easy read texts/guidebooks (’50 things to do when your child gets sick’)

 poems/writing displayed on walls; on corridors; in waiting rooms

Groups based on books/reading

 group discussions about what has been individually read

 reading groups, where people have read the same material and discuss it

 intensive, focused reading to gain significant insights from content

 groups are read to, with opportunities to reflect, discuss and extend

 links to public library services/to organisation’s library … group visits/ group meetings there

 members of organisations/networks recommend books they have read that have inspired them, helped them, given them insights into the human condition (e.g. a moving memoir; a useful self-help book; a factual book on a specific topic), Readers give name of book, name of author and brief summary of why they would recommend it

 groups can be self-managed; ‘professionally’ led; volunteer-led

 groups meet in community venues (community centre, library etc) and are able to link into other activities at that venue

Directed reading

 ‘prescription’ of readings/discussion … linked to specific health issue

 ‘reading on prescription’ models e.g. GP ‘prescribes’ a book from an agreed list (selected by professionals). The patient takes the prescription to the library to borrow the book, read it, then return it to the GP to discuss any benefit it has offered.

 use of ‘Skilled for Health’ materials (covering Health and Wellbeing; services and self-care) in tutor-led groups

Support of other people

 use of reading volunteers/volunteers to manage book stocks etc; (also possible for group members to take on volunteering roles); volunteer readers for older people, those in hospital etc

 access to storytellers/writers/illustrators etc

 business volunteers create ‘reading gardens’

Access to writing

 writing group; writing sessions; encouragement of individual writing

 production of ‘in-house’, or widely available, newsletter/magazine/ group blog etc

 group members using writing etc on basis that putting things into words often helps healing etc. People being encouraged not just to journal everyday events but to try to create poetry from them

 writer-in-residence/writer-on-attachment to sets of venues/units or to groups of people

 writing produced ‘in-house’ and recycled on as reading materials for relevant groups of people

 …… there’s probably lots more ……

Various labels can be attached to these activities (‘Well Read’; ‘Words for Wellbeing’; ‘Reading for Recovery’ etc) – but the clarity of options should come before any label promotion; lets get the activities in place without worrying about the label


Background on the wider benefits of learning, to health outcomes - that can be used to inform developments

Many examples of informal learning (taken as activities for those aged 19 or more, where there is a relatively overt form of studying/learning, but not linked to accreditation/qualifications) have been demonstrating outcomes that build individuals’ resilience, enabling effective responses to adversity and stress etc. The link through to better wellbeing is perhaps most obvious in relation to depression (since rates of depression correlate more strongly with levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy). A number of studies with adults who have mental health difficulties report that participation in informal learning groups has positive effect on mental health.

Given the supportive way such groups are run, any gains from higher self-efficacy (a component of resilience) are likely to outweigh the likelihood of any increases in anxiety due to taking part in the activities.

There is evidence that reliance on nicotine, alcohol and other addictive substances (as well as certain patterns of eating) are sometimes responses to adversity/stress and thus open to change by engagement in learning experiences that are designed to leave adults feeling more independent, more self-confident, more used to problem-solving or discussion, and with a greater sense of purposefulness.

Studies, showing health gains from involvement in informal learning, have covered specific groups of older adults; people with mental health difficulties; pregnant/post pregnant women; young ‘at risk’ adults; long term unemployed with health conditions; depressed frail elderly; adults with Alzheimer’s Disease; adults recovering from heart attacks; adults recovering from suicide attempts. The interventions are often promoted as being relatively low cost (because of their group nature); ‘non-medical’; flexible, able to be adapted and customised to groups and individuals, and variable over time.

The ‘intended consequences’ deliberately built into these various examples of ‘learning for improved health’ approaches include:

- developing empathy with others

- building a sense of group/community; interpersonal trust/support

- connecting to broader outlooks on things

- considering alternatives; 'what ifs'

- encouraging interpersonal communication

- reducing tendencies to hostility

- encouraging voluntary activity

- engaging with ideas, concepts, attitudes

All of these can be structures into reading-based interventions.

From other sources, health outcomes might also be improved by:

- opportunities to link to community resources - libraries, art gallery etc

- opportunities to do own writing, as well as to focus on reading

- Time to talk - being seen as valuable

- having access to books on loan, if not on prescription

- selection of material that connects to human experiences, but also access to wide-ranging material so that each individual might connect to something serendipitously

These can all form part of the work with adults, whatever the immediate focus.

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