Books for Better Mental Health

24 February 2016 | Posted In: #128 Autumn 2016, Community Sector, Human Service Delivery, Mental Health Programs, | Author: Christopher Smith

Stories have the power to change lives. Christopher Smith experienced Shared Reading in the United Kingdom, trained as a facilitator and is now training mental health workers in Inner West Sydney to explore the healing potential of great literature.

sharedreadingWith social isolation one of the most pervasive and destructive issues facing people recovering from mental ill-health, new approaches are needed to ensure that there are opportunities for people to connect, relax, contribute their strengths and share experiences with others. Engaging with great literature through Shared Reading groups can make a major contribution to mental health recovery.

Shared Reading groups are about providing a safe space for people to come, where they are not going to be judged. A story is read out loud and then discussed. Everybody is welcome to contribute to the reading or the discussion, but there is no pressure on them to do so. Some people come along because it gives them the chance to sit somewhere for a couple of hours with other people, where there is no pressure on them, and the sound of someone reading can be very comforting.

Our read-aloud approach means that the group is literally on the same page and we work together – by sharing thoughts, feelings and life experience – to understand a particular piece of writing. We start with what people bring to the group and what they contribute to the discussion; we do not see people as a problem to be solved. It is therefore a wonderful activity to give people who struggle or lack confidence with reading, a way in to the benefits that great books can provide.

So what are the benefits of reading? There are some obvious benefits for acquiring knowledge and education but there are a multitude of subtler benefits. There is the relaxation that comes from having some time away from your cares, and in the characters, situations or images encountered, you can see your own problems from a different perspective. Books can also tell you that you are not alone, providing comfort and solace in dark times and they can give a voice to feelings that you did not know where there.

I found this out first hand when a close friend died. He was 26 and he had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. When he knew that he was dying he and his girlfriend decided to get married and he asked if I would read a poem at his wedding, he gave me Leisure by W H Davies. I read it again at his funeral at the request of his wife. Then I carried on with my life. I didn’t really know how to acknowledge my grief. After about 3 months I went to a Shared Reading group in the UK – the movement has exploded there – and they read the same poem. It was a strange feeling, there was a lot of sadness for me but I felt held by the group, like it was ok to express myself. After it I felt freer. Less knotted up.

I then trained as a facilitator with The Reader Organisation in the UK, and then when I moved to Australia I noticed that there was nothing that replicated the Shared Reading model here. So I founded Shared Reading NSW, as a Social Enterprise set up to harness the power of great stories for social good.

Now in its second year we have received funding under the Partners in Recovery Innovative Funding round, to provide training to mental health workers in the Inner West of Sydney in the development and delivery of Shared Reading groups. We are looking for people that are supporting people through difficult times in their life in all sorts of circumstances. We want to get groups going in hospital settings, supported housing, libraries, everywhere really. This model will work wherever there is a group of people.

There will be 2 training sessions in the Inner West in 2016. These will take place in March and April. To register your interest contact Shared Reading NSW on

Christopher Smith is the CEO of Shared Reading NSW