Pick up a book: it may be just the answer to your depression

IT’S the fields of waving wildflowers that are puzzling.

They figure in every second advertisement in magazines and newspapers aimed at doctors. Sometimes on their own, sometimes alongside a contrasting picture of a fraught woman. The fraught woman, all clenched hands and frowny face, is sometimes shot in close up and in black and white. She’s the Before. The wildflowers, in improbably varied colours, come into their own in the After photograph to the right. Same woman, this time in full colour, dancing through the daisies.

The fields to which the anti-depressant or tranquilliser transport this bothered woman never seem to have nettles or cowpats in them and even the daisies look as if they’ve been given a bit of a scrub.

It’s weird. The medication is supposed to lift depression, dispense with anxiety or damp down panic attacks. None of the many friends who have suffered from one or all of the above has ever confided to me a burgeoning desire to go dance on a farmer’s land. Most people (male and female) just want to be able to get to work, get through the day and have the odd moment of peace and content. Wildflowers are not high on the agenda of the depressed or anxious, but the poor folk in the ad agency who are trying to come up with a visual to express freedom from bad emotions don’t have that many options. So they end up offering The Sound of Music revivus, featuring at a pharmacy near you.

Of course, most people who suffer anxiety, depression or panic and who go to their GP expect, if not fields of bluebells, at least a prescription for something that will make them feel a little better. From this week, in Britain, the prescription they take away with them from a GP visit may specify an anti-depressant or other chemical mood-management pill, but it is likely, into the bargain, to carry an instruction to get to the local library in order to pick up a book. The book may be an individual title, or it may be left up to the patient to pick from a list of 30 recommendations. The local library will have the complete list, because Britain’s Arts Council has handed over £20,000 (€23,000) to that service to purchase the volumes.

“There is growing evidence showing that self-help reading can help people with certain mental health conditions get better,” says the Reading Agency, the charity which came up with the idea. “Reading Well Books on Prescription will enable GPs and mental health professionals to prescribe patients cognitive behavioural therapy through a visit to the library. Here they can get books to help them understand and manage conditions from depression to chronic pain.”

The new scheme has the backing of the Royal Colleges of GPs, Nursing and Psychiatry, the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies and Britain’s Department of Health. The director of Research at the Reading Agency suggests that doctors might direct patients with mild to moderate mental health conditions to explore the possibilities represented by the books during a period of “watchful waiting” before pharmaceuticals are novels. Each has been professionally assessed as likely to cheer people up.

Some of the cheerer-uppers are pretty obvious. Anything by Adriana Trigiani has the same reassuring, “there, there, it’ll all come right in the end” impact as works by Maeve Binchy, and so it comes as no surprise to see her The Beach Café included. Armistead Maupin’s linked short stories, Tales from the City, which made being gay an unthreatening reality for readers when first published in his local newspaper in 1974 in weekly episodes, as Dickens’ novels had been a century earlier, were then, and are still, amusing and optimistic.

SOME of the titles, however, come as a surprise, if not a shock. That experts have found anything written by Salman Rushdie likely to boost the mood of readers is not what this reader would have expected and I’m not prepared to endanger my present level of happiness by re-reading him.

I did, however, do a little experiment over the weekend. I printed out the list and, finding I already owned many of them, selected four to read, all together. Nancy Mitford’s face was on the back of a paperback of The Pursuit of Love originally bought second-hand, as evidenced by the “5P” scribbled in indelible ink on the front cover. To Kill a Mockingbird, also second-hand, had been more expensive: 20P, as had Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie. The only hardback bought new was a miniature edition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden with gold-edged tissue paper pages.

Phone turned off, I read the four books, none of which I’d touched since my teens. A hundred pages of one, then of another and another and another, then back to the first. The fascinating thing they had in common — indeed, perhaps the only thing they had in common — was that none of them tells a happy-clappy cheery story about instantaneously likeable people. Rather the reverse: The Secret Garden’s heroine, by the time she’s six, is “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived,” while the Nancy Mitford book opens with the attempted suicide of a ten year old.

What each does, though, is take the reader out of everything they know, dumping them decisively into a different reality, whether that’s a racially divided small town in 1950s Alabama or a remote Cotswold village shortly after the Second World War. Within hours, my weekend To Do list had bitten the dust, as I fell in love all over again with Atticus Finch, the lawyer played by Gregory Peck in the film they made of To Kill a Mockinbird. Atticus practices economy more than he practices law while rearing his two motherless children, who find him “satisfactory” because “he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment.” (A better definition of good fatherhood has yet to be written.) Atticus, as the book progresses, defends a black man against a rape charge, knowing he will lose and that the young man will die.

Cheery? No. Enmeshing? Yes. Enmeshing even in the reminders — in most of the four books — of poverty and mortality. Many of the children are orphaned. Many of them are “sickly.”

The challenges they encounter are not amenable to a 26-minute turnaround, as required by TV sitcoms.

When, eventually, I checked emails and text messages, it took but a few minutes, because none seemed as interesting as the lives waiting for me to return. Having started from a position of eyebrow-raised scepticism, by the time the third book had finished, I was a convert. Happier, genuinely. Head filled with pictures, insights and quotes.

For £20,000 the Brits may have discovered the cheapest and most effective route to better mental health — Minister Kathleen Lynch might look into it.

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