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Why I treat mental health conditions by prescribing books

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