A different kind of medicine

Source: NHE March/April 2018

Could literature improve the quality of life of those with mental health conditions? According to Jane Davis, founder and director of The Reader, the evidence for this is clear – and the NHS stands to benefit the most.

Medicine wasn’t at the forefront of my mind in The Reader’s formative days back in 2001; if anything, the foundations had been built on education. I’d been teaching English Literature at the University of Liverpool, and my personal experiences had taught me that great literature was a useful human resource which could help people living lives full of difficulty – today, we might call it developing resilience.

I started the first Shared Reading session in a community centre in North Birkenhead with a group of people who might never have read a piece of literature; some who couldn’t read. But they could still get involved, everything was read aloud – Shakespeare, Chekov and Maya Angelou – and we talked, not in an academic sense, but in a human way: what did it mean to us in a personal way? One man in those early days, who claimed he only read the back of sauce bottles, said: “I’ve learned more about women from reading Jane Eyre in this group than I have in 40 years of marriage.”

That first group asked me one day if the NHS paid me to run these Shared Reading sessions. I was surprised: this was an education project, why the NHS? It turned out that every one of them was engaged with NHS services in some way, and they all agreed that sitting down to read together once a week was helping.

In 2007, Mersey Care NHS FT commissioned The Reader to deliver Shared Reading groups across a range of inpatient settings, becoming the first NHS body to do so. Dr David Fearnley, its medical director who, alongside the CEO, ran a group, said that “Shared Reading is one of the most significant developments to have taken place in mental health practice in the last 10 years.”

The Reader continues to work with Mersey Care and has subsequently worked with over 35 NHS trusts, CCGs and public health services across the UK. Research by University of Liverpool’s Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society found that Shared Reading improves wellbeing, reduces social isolation and builds stronger, more supportive communities. The flexibility of the model means that Shared Reading can deliver a range of health and social outcomes across society in community settings and care homes, in 31 criminal justice settings, and clinical health services such as The Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust, where Shared Reading is delivered alongside CBT at the chronic pain clinic.

Dr Andrew Jones, consultant in anaesthesia and pain medicine at The Royal, said: “When people are in CBT, they are people with pain. When they’re in the reading group they’re people with lives.” Group members have reported improved wellbeing and a greater sense of meaning, with one saying: “We’re all broken people, but we’re able to find some wholeness here.”

Specific tenders by Wirral Council and Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland indicates their recognition of Shared Reading as a core element of their service, bringing groups into community settings across Wirral and into all prisons in Northern Ireland. With over 400 groups across the UK, The Reader is building a movement which will make Shared Reading part of the fabric of life. Our patron, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, once said that Shared Reading groups “should be like pubs, one on every corner,” and with the support of National Lottery funding through the Big Lottery Fund and more colleagues in the NHS, we hope to expand Shared Reading across the UK and provide a ‘different kind of medicine’ for all.


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