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Nov 27, 2017

Bibliotherapy: More Than Self Help

Every Thanksgiving weekend, I make an effort to enjoy my own personal tradition--- immersing myself in a good book.  As a young girl, the entrepreneurial shenanigans of the Baby-Sitters Club had me excusing myself from the dinner table and bypassing the pumpkin pie.  In high school, Stephen King’s eerie tales of proms gone awry were more my style than any of the best Black Friday deals.  Regardless of if I was studying for a spelling test or for my comprehensive exam, stories have provided me with an unmatched sense of comfort as I meet new people, travel to exotic lands (and yes, small-town Maine counts), and indulge in someone else’s drama.  The last week of November has always been the ideal time for this self-care ritual, as the days grow shorter and the dates draw closer to the impending holiday frenzy.

While I can speak of literature’s restorative effects from my own experience, what place does it have in the world of counseling? Can creative texts, such as fiction and poetry, be used as formal therapeutic tools? Bibliotherapy, like art, music, and movement therapies, is a form of creative arts counseling.  While the term was coined in the early 20th century, ancient scholars regarded the curative value of reading so highly that the inscription “The Healing Place of the Soul” adorned early library doors.  Reading, according to contemporary bibliotherapy researchers, can help clients gain self-awareness, increase empathy, and even develop problem solving skills.  Most importantly, when readers identify with the characters at hand, they can deepen their insight and find a renewed sense of hope in the perceived shared experience. 

Surveys conducted by Dr. Dale Pehrsson and her research team suggest that bibliotherapy, in its various forms, is widely practiced by ACA affiliated professionals.  However, more than two thirds of respondents note that they use nonfiction (i.e. self-help books and workbooks) compared to one third, who report using fiction. While this may be a reflection of the theoretical orientation of respondents (cognitive-behavioral therapists tend to favor self-help books while psychodynamic counselors are more apt to utilize creative texts), it might imply that creative literature is a relatively untapped source of therapeutic potential.

In upcoming posts, I hope to share with you research findings, best practices, and implications for counselor educators, as they relate to bibliotherapy.  For now, here are a few things to consider:

  • Do I currently recommend literature to my clients? Why or why not?
  • How do I gauge the appropriateness of literature?
  • What is my role in processing these works with my client, if any?
  • Do I believe I possess the knowledge to make suitable recommendations, especially from a multiculturally competent perspective?
  • How do ethical standards guide me in selecting literature and determining who might benefit from bibliotherapy?

And so, what was on tap for this year’s Reading Ritual?  An article on Relational-cultural Theory, shared with me by my mentor.  And a few Black Friday shopping flyers…


Pehrsson, Dale-Elizabeth, and Paula S. McMillen. (2010). A national survey of bibliotherapy preparation and practices of professional counselors.  Journal of creativity in mental health, 5 (4).

Bruneau, L., & Pehrsson, D. (2014).  The process of therapeutic reading: Opening doors for counselor development. Journal of creativity in mental health, 9(3).

Christine Hennigan Paone is a counselor in training at Monmouth University as well as an aspiring counselor educator.  Her research interests include creativity in counseling, multicultural career counseling, and pedagogy.

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