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Poetry Not Prozac: Depression and the Reading Revolution

Written by The Reader, 2nd October 2012

Poetry Not Prozac: Depression and the Reading Revolution
1pm, 10th October, Hearnshaw Lecture Theatre, Eleanor Rathbone Building
University of Liverpool

         "Who would have thought my shrivell'd heart

Could have recovered greenness? It was gone

Quite under ground . . .'

So wrote the seventeenth-century religious poet George Herbert of his own dark night of the soul – something which today we might call 'depression' and treat as a medical problem.

It is now estimated that 350 million people globally suffer from depression. By 2030 more people will be affected by depression than by any other major health problem. What is to be done: pop a pill?

Poetry Not Prozac: Depression and the Reading Revolution is a free public lecture which will argue that reading serious literature, often in those very areas that may cause depression, can offer something that drugs or therapeutic self-help manuals cannot.

Professor Philip Davis and Dr Josie Billington will present the lecture will take place on 10th October, to mark World Mental Health Day, and it will be based on their work of the Centre of Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems (CRILS) at the University of Liverpool. The Centre brings together researchers in literature,health, linguistics, psychology, social anthropology and digital technologies, to collaborate on projects aimed at taking reading practices out of universities and into communities and healthcare professions.

CRILS is one of The Reader Organisation's research partners and our Get Into Reading groups work to improve the health and wellbeing of people in community settings, inpatient services, and secure hospitals. Dr Billington is the co-author of 'An investigation into the therapeutic benefits of reading in relation to depression and wellbeing', a research study investigating the impact of the Get Into Reading model on those with depression. It found that Get Into Reading helped improve patients' social, mental, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. The full report is available to read on the Research page of our website.

The lecture is hosted by the University of Liverpool's Disabled Staff Network and is open to anyone who may be interested. To book your free seat, please contact

12 thoughts on “Poetry Not Prozac: Depression and the Reading Revolution

jennerous says:

Please suggest to them they come to London also – I would love to go to this!

chiquitar says:

“– something which today we might call ‘depression’ and treat as a medical problem.”

This reeks of antiquated attitudes toward mental illness. You’re saying that depression is NOT a medical problem? Or does not deserve treatment? What, someone with mental illness should read some poetry and snap out of it?

We’ve come a long way since we took the mentally ill, locked them away, and lobotomized them into drooling vegetables. I find it utterly, appallingly offensive to read something this dismissive about a valid, scientifically researched and established mental illness in this day and age.

I hope you retract that statement. People suffering from depression have it hard enough; they–we–need your support, not to be dismissed out of hand as a modern fad.

Lizzie says:

We’re very sorry that the language used in the blog post has created the impression that we do not think depression is a very real and serious medical problem. This was absolutely not the intention – we work widely in a variety of mental health settings across the UK and reach hundreds of people each week who suffer from mental health difficulties and benefit from the connection, stimulation and stability that their weekly reading group provides.

We take the issue of depression very seriously, which is why we have focussed so much attention on developing strong links with health trusts and research partners, such as CRILS. Their lecture next week will discuss the findings of the ‘therapeutic benefits of reading in relation to depression and wellbeing’ evaluation report (2010) into Get Into Reading, which found that the groups really helped patients suffering from depression in terms of their social, emotional and psychological wellbeing.

You certainly have our full support, and if you would like to find out any more about the work we are doing to address these issues, we’d be very happy to talk to you.

chiquitar says:

Thank you for clarifying your organizations activities. However, what I’d really love to see is an edit of the line I quoted. The links and advertisements of this article (at least, the one I saw) ONLY quote that first line, which comes across as dismissive, and I think would make most people suffering from depression feel worse. And the title “Poetry NOT Prozac” (emphasis mine) implies that depressed people should stop their meds in favor of reading poetry. Could this show an underlying bias against depression as valid illness, perhaps? I believe there should be an emphasis on validating depression as an illness, personally. I just find a lot of the phrasing really unfortunate.

Lizzie says:

Thank you for responding. We are not in a position to edit the line, as it is a direct quotation from the information about the lecture itself, which also features on the posters.
Hopefully by having this discussion on the blog, we can make clear that we certainly did not intend to dismiss those with depression or imply that the condition isn’t real. We absolutely believe depression is a valid illness and an important focus for research.

Karl says:

I have recently being suffering from depression and anxiety, maybe amongst other things, I don’t know. Personally I am very reluctant to take medication. Although I fully understand why people choose to. My immediate reaction is to reach for a book and admittedly I’ve been reading things that I wish I never had to. Personally I find it definitely helpsalthough it can be difficult. Until know I was questioning if I was doing myself more harm than good. Seeing this has given me a little bit of hope that maybe my way of coping is the right way for me:)

Fong says:

Unfortunately I can’t attend this lecture. I was wondering if there will be a transcription of it available after the event? Thanks.

Lizzie says:

Thanks for your comment. The lecture itself has not been published online, but you can read an interview about the lecture and research with Professor Philip Davies from CRILS on our blog today:

[…] The Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems at the University of Liverpool marked World Mental Health Day last week with a public lecture entitled ‘Poetry Not Prozac: Depression and the Reading Revolution‘. […]

Mary says:

A big thank you to Chiquitar for your comments of 3rd October. You’ve said it all for me – I feel exactly the same as you do about “Poetry not Prozac”. Why does the title state “..not prozac”? If prozac helps people suffering from depressive illness why shouldn’t they take it? It might not be prozac but some other medication that helps an individual. Personally I found poetry very useful to express my feelings when I was mentally ill with depression (are we allowed to say “illness” – or must we be politically correct and say “mental distress”?!) however I used poetry AND medication. Depressive illness is not about “feeling very unhappy” – some people with this illness are so severely ill that they are in a coma – yes, that can and does happen – a very medical problem. I’m a big fan of the Reader Organisation, but such an anti-medication attitude is simply irresponsible. I feel sure the hospital trusts they work with don’t support trying to turn ill people against medication!
Keep up your good work, Chiquitar, you express the views of many.

Lizzie says:

Thank you for your comment, Mary. Please allow me to repeat that we are absolutely not anti-medication and to apologise if the blog post creates that impression. The lecture and its content was the work of the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems. Perhaps you would be interested to read this interview with Professor Philip Davis from CRILS, in which he specifically addresses the use of medication:

johncoyote says:

I agree. I was losing my my when I was in service. They gave me drugs to create peace. I realized it just deaden my mind and thoughts. I used writing and running. I found other sources to release my frustrations. A lot of kids need activities. Not any type of drugs.

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