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Why I treat mental health conditions by prescribing books

Dr Helena McKeown explains the benefits of the Reading Well Books on Prescription scheme

Reading Well Books on Prescription is a scheme run by the charity the Reading Agency and the Society of Chief Librarians which aims to help people understand and manage their mental health conditions with self-help books. As GPs we write a ‘prescription’ for certain books that will help the patient learn about their condition and hopefully learn to manage it. I prescribe books about anxiety, depression and eating disorders most often. I recently found out there is a new books on prescription scheme for dementia, which I am planning to start using. GPs interested in the scheme can contact their local library to obtain prescriber leaflets, or go to the Reading Well resources site for full information, booklists and downloadable PDFs.

It’s a great scheme, and I easily give out one or two prescriptions per week. Here are the benefits:

1. Alternative to therapy

I tend to offer this scheme if a patient doesn’t want to see a psychological therapist, or if the patient has been offered the opportunity to go on a course but doesn’t want to talk about their condition with other people. In our area, due to lack of funding, it can be difficult for a patient to be deemed ill enough to receive ongoing therapy, and a book can help patients if they don’t have the option of counselling. I haven’t got any quantitative data from the scheme, but I believe that these books can help teach patients techniques to manage their symptoms so that subsequent episodes of their illness are shorter and less severe.

2. Non-pharmacological treatment

It’s a non-pharmacological treatment, which I like to promote. There will be limited unpleasant side-effects from reading a book.

3. Simple to use

The actual process of prescribing the books is very straightforward. I have a stack of leaflets from the local library listing the books available on the scheme. I simply put a tick next to the books that I think will be useful to the patient, they take the leaflet (which has my signature and practice stamp on it) to the library desk and can get the books without having to explain what they’re looking for. They don’t even have to be a member of the library.

4. Other people in the household can pick up the book

I think one of the most unique benefits of the books on prescription scheme is the potential for other family members to opportunistically learn about the condition, if the patient finds it difficult to talk about. If the book is lying around at home, the patient’s partner may pick it up, read it and be able to better support the patient – which can obviously help recovery. The patient may even proactively suggest that their partner should read the book.

5. Value for money

This scheme is cheap - the national cost average of Reading Well Books on Prescription to date is £1 per user, in total for the first two years of the scheme.

Like any treatment, there are problems with this scheme: for example, I’m not aware of any easy read versions of the books, and an electronic system would be a benefit – leaflets are a bit passé. And of course, there is no guarantee patients will pick up the book, or read it when they pick it up, but this is the same with any prescription GPs issue – we know that people go away with blood pressure pills and don’t take them. However, overall it’s a simply, effective system and I would definitely recommend that other GPs use it too.

Dr Helena McKeown is a RCGP and BMA council member and a GP partner in Salisbury, Wiltshire

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Readers' comments (13)

  • Please list the books that you recommend. Thanks

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  • Overcoming anger and irritability
    overcoming anxiety and two other anxiety books
    overcoming binge eating and two other binge eating books
    chronic fatigue syndrome and another overcoming CFS book
    overcoming chronic pain
    overcoming depression and low mood and two others
    overcoming health anxiety and another similar
    overcoming OCD and two alternatives
    overcoming panic and agoraphobia and another similar
    an introduction to coping with phobia
    overcoming relationship problems
    overcoming low self-esteem and another similar one
    overcoming insomnia and sleep problems
    overcoming social anxiety and shyness
    the relaxation and stress reduction workbook and a similar one
    the worry cure and another similar one.

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  • Thanks for this - good reading list for trainees to develop approaches to these issues as well.

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  • Good idea for those who wouldn't be visiting the library otherwise but even better if you could keep them in the practice with no need to visit a library and get the books checked out. Why call it a prescription.they are just being recommended surely

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  • Can I suggest a few others for colleagues:
    Overcoming GMC
    Overcoming CQC
    Overcoming appraisal
    Overcoming revalidation
    Overcoming unplanned admissions
    Overcoming the Liverpool Care Pathway
    Overcoming drug shortages
    Overcoming heart sinks
    Overcoming burn out
    Overcoming silly nonsense

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  • OMG, what a load of absolute twaddle!
    Cardigans of the world unite

    Overcoming cardigans and bleeding hearts is the toughest assignment - perhaps the trainees could tackle that

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  • You are assuming the patient can actually read and if so has not investigated self-help options before consulting.

    And is there any evidence for the efficacy of books vs medication or psychological therapy?

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  • good suggestion of books. I think most GPs will agree: to many stressors , anxiety etc are medicalised. the above is an option. well done and thanks

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  • "Cardigans" approach very much safer, and evidence base not yet pharma corrupted. See infamous Study 329 revisited in BMJ September 2015.

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  • No recommending books by friends and relatives now!!

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