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Community based solutions are needed to support the NHS to deal with mental health crisis 

Written by Lily Kehoe, 7th July 2023

Geetha Rabindrakumar, our Director of Partnerships, Communities and Impact reflects on our research on reading habits and mental health and the role of Shared Reading in supporting the NHS. 

Last week, The Reader launched research on the public’s reading habits, and how books and reading aloud can support mental health during a cost of living crisis. We were pleased to see our research reported in local and national press including the Independent and the Evening Standard , and also to see that it prompted a government response which highlighted planned investment in mental health services over the next year.  

Whilst government plans to expand access to NHS talking therapies for adults with mental health conditions are clearly welcome, with the scale of the mental health crisis, and rising demand with continued financial pressures for so many people, this will not be enough. This week, we can celebrate the fantastic work and achievements in the NHS over 75 years, but also recognise that more support for non clinical and community based solutions is urgently needed together with NHS services to address the challenges we face today: tackling the isolation so many people are experiencing, and to help prevent poor mental health escalating to acute need. 

Every week, our volunteers and partners in communities across the country bring people together in small groups to read great poems and stories aloud, and to open up conversations about the difficult things that may be going on in our lives, without judgement. We call this Shared Reading, and it is happening in libraries, community centres, in care homes and mental health services and in wider wellbeing services run by many local charities for people who need support. We know from over 20 years of experience that Shared Reading groups provide a lifeline for many people, providing a space for mutual care and connection. Community based support spaces such as these have a vital role to play in prevention as well as recovery for individuals with mental health conditions, benefitting stretched NHS primary care and mental health services that we know cannot meet rising demand, and that people may be unable or reluctant to access. 

Our polling data indicates that more people are turning to self help books in these times, showing that people are searching for solutions and tools for support, not necessarily from the NHS. We were also struck by the finding that 38% people agree that they can relate to literature about people in adverse times more now during a cost-of-living crisis compared to previous years.  

Author Jeanette Winterson wrote “A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is”. In Shared Reading, we see the power of great stories and poems to connect with people across time and place, giving us a rich language to help us make sense of our experiences and the issues we face in the world. Through reading and talking together in spaces that are filled with joy and laughter as well as authentic connection, people tell us that they “feel seen” and not as merely patients to be treated or individuals with problems. 

In the words of one of our Readers who runs a Shared Reading group having experienced mental health difficulties, reading about someone else’s struggles in literature, can leave people thinking “I am not alone, and that I too may survive”. Thanks to support we have recently received from the Garfield Weston Foundation we are ready to collaborate with mental health services to ensure that more groups are available in future for people who will need the solace, insight and deep human connection they provide, now more than ever. 

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