If Richard Steele was correct in saying that "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body," then it would follow that reading is good for mental health. According to an article on the South African College of Applied Psychology website, reading makes us more empathetic, makes us more mentally flexible, improves rationality and creativity, enhances brain connectivity and function, and can help stave off dementia.
Depression can also be helped by reading, As an arrticle in The Guardian points out, countless readers and writers have sought solace in books. The Guardian quotes poet JJ Bola: "[T]he world can get you so down you feel like you’re the only person going through what you’re going through. But then you read and you realise that you are not alone." Books can distract you from pain and grief. They can elevate your mood. They can take you on adventures far away from the reality of your sadness.
Reading can help with anxiety as well. According to an article on The University of Minnesota website, reading can lower your heart rate and ease the tension in muscles. The article sites a 2009 study at the University of Sussex, which found that reading can cut stress levels by more than half. The article claims that such studies have shown that reading works better than other meditation techniques, such as listening to music and drinking hot tea.
However, mental illnesses can make it difficult to read. A Healthline article explains that people who suffer from PTSD--post-traumatic stress disorder--often find it difficult to focus. PTSD puts its sufferers into a fight, flight, or freeze state of panic. Can you imagine trying to pick up a book while feeling that way?
Psychotherapist Alyssa Williams explains that it isn't just PTSD that causes this problem. Other mental health disorders, like ADD, ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, and most of the anxiety disorders can cause difficulty in concentration. So, how can people benefit from reading if they find it too hard to focus?
Here are some things that can help:
Read shorter works. Don't overwhelm yourself with long-ass novels. The benefits of reading don't depend on the length of the work. A poem, a short story, a novella, a comic book, a graphic novel, or a short novel can do the trick without draining your ability to focus. My young adult fantasy novels tend to run around 60,000 words (except for Thanatos, which is nearly twice that). My mystery novels tend to run around 70,000. Depending on the genre, novels can be upwards of 100,000 words, whereas novellas tend to be around 30,000 words.
Read only what you like. Don't force yourself to read something just because it's a classic, or popular, or recommended by a friend. Choose things you know you'll enjoy.
Try audiobooks. Some people find it easier to focus on an audiobook, because you can be doing mundane activities, such as cleaning house, folding laundry, waiting in line, or driving a familiar route, as you listen. If you'd like to try one of mine for free at Audible, go here if in the U.S. and here if in the U.K. (I'm sorry that this offer isn't available elsewhere.)
If you continue to have trouble concentrating due to mental illness, seek help. Therapy, medication, and/or changes in your lifestyle may be what you need to manage your mental health. Whatever you do, don't neglect it.
If you're able to read in spite of mental health issues, consider reading some of the 32 books on this list compiled by Bookbub. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky) are just a couple of examples mentioned on their list.
I take on the issue of mental health in my young adult psychological thriller The Purgatorium Series. Readers seem to love it or hate it. My goal in writing it was to focus on the blurry line between art and reality by having a doctor use "living art" as "suicide thereapy."
In the series, a teen who feels guilty for her sister's death is sent to an island where a doctor uses experimental methods that cross ethical lines. The teen soon wonders if her parents meant to help or to punish her.
Grab the first book from your favorite vendor here.
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