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GPs to prescribe self-help books for mental health problems

People in England with mild to moderate mental health concerns, including panic attacks, anxiety and depression, are to be prescribed self-help books which they can borrow from their local library.

Titles such as The Feeling Good Handbook, How to Stop Worrying and Overcoming Anger and Irritability will be among the 30 prescription titles that libraries across England will stock in an attempt to improve the wellbeing of the nation.

The scheme was announced on Thursday at the British Library and has been developed over the past year by the Reading Agency charity. Its chief executive, Miranda McKearney, said of the project: “There is a growing evidence base that shows that self-help reading can help people with certain mental health conditions to get better.”

She said 6 million people in the UK suffered from anxiety and depression, and around two thirds of those people were not receiving any treatment.

The Books on Prescription scheme is being rolled out across GPs’ surgeries and libraries in England in May and is based on a similar scheme in Wales pioneered by the Cardiff-based clinical psychologist Professor Neil Frude.

Denmark has gone down the same road and Frude said New Zealand had just become the first country in the southern hemisphere to take it up.

“It is wonderful that it’s spreading,” he said. “I’m a little disappointed it has taken this long to get to England to be honest.”

Frude first set up the scheme in Cardiff in 2003 and the Welsh assembly took it nationwide in 2005. It was borne out of frustration at knowing the value of the books, but knowing that so many people either weren’t aware of them or could not get hold of them. It was a simple idea, he said. “The doctors are already there, the books are already there and so are the libraries. It just needed joining them up.”

In Wales now, 30,000 self-help books are borrowed every year and three of the 10 most borrowed books in the country are self-help.

There is a wealth of evidence to show that prescribing such books does work, the latest being research published in the journal Plos One which showed that people who used them over a year had measurably lower levels of depression.

Of course, there are good books and bad books and hunting through them can be dizzying: typing “self-help” into Amazon brings back more than 250,000 results.

“There is no shortage of books but some of them are atrocious and some of them are absolute gold,” said Frude. He quoted the American system where self-help books are rated from five-star down to one-star and then dagger – a book that will make you feel worse.

In England the project is being led by the Reading Agency’s director of research, Debbie Hicks. She said all but two local authorities in England were behind the scheme, which had also been endorsed by the Department of Health and crucially, the Royal College.

The full list of 30 books was signed off on Wednesday and will be circulated to all the library authorities next week. The list of conditions includes anger, anxiety, binge eating, depression, anxiety, obsessions and compulsions, panic, phobias, self-esteem, stress and worry. There will also be books prescribed to people who suffer chronic pain or fatigue, or perhaps have relationship problems.

Next year the agency would like to start including books targeted at children and young people.

Hicks said: “All the evidence does suggest that it does work and we have been extremely rigorous in putting together our list, making sure there is an evidence base for each book – that they have been used and found to be effective.”

She stressed that the list would not be set in concrete. “This is a starting point and we will evolve and develop it.”

Hicks said all the authorities had committed to buying the books and some would have collections in every library, while all of them would have them available.

How many books they may need is not yet clear. “The demand is likely to build as the scheme develops,” she said.

The prescription scheme is being run in parallel with the agency’s promotion called Mood Boosting Books. It hopes that, as well as reading the self-help books, people might join reading groups or just read books such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, or Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, and discover that that puts them in a better mood. A new list of mood boosting books will come out in May.

The use of good self-help books is endorsed by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, although Frude said Nice does not say which books should be used, whereas it would with particular drugs.

“They are not for everybody,” Frude said. “And of course we are not talking about people with serious illnesses, but one in six of us will have a diagnosable mental illness in our lifetime.”

The books on prescription scheme was announced as part of a new national approach to library services drawn up by the Society of Chief Librarians. They revealed details of four “universal offers”, or promises, that libraries will provide services in the areas of health, reading, information and digital.

The society’s president, Janene Cox, said libraries, many facing the threat of closure and budget cuts, were having to evolve more quickly than ever before. “Local authorities have never faced such challenging times and confronted with these, we do have to think innovatively, act collaboratively and manage creatively to ensure the sustainability and future development of our services.”

More: The medicinal power of literature: Books on prescription to be introduced