The book about mindfulness, newly purchased through Book Depository for dealing with anxiety and PTSD was recommended by my therapist. I visualised myself studiously poring over it and completing the various sections of the workbook, each of the completed sections a stepping-stone to wellness, wholeness and peace. However, opening the cover and seeing the word ‘anxiety’ in the title struck me down. I cried so much I couldn’t get past the first page. I never read the book.
As a librarian and lifelong book lover, I had experienced the power of books to transport me to other worlds, their ability to quieten the mind and expand my horizons. I was the kind of child who read everything, a teen who always had a book on the go, an adult who bought books for myself, friends, and family, and continue to be someone who often rereads favourite books because they are comfortingly familiar. When I was studying, books inhabited my bed; they were under my pillows, sometimes under the covers. Yet, I found that when I needed the solace of written words the most, an escape from my inescapable self, the door was jammed closed. My experience of the Christchurch earthquakes had left me feeling shattered, hijacked, and out of control. Things that I enjoyed, that I felt defined me, I found impossible. It was difficult to cook, I couldn’t settle to watch a film or read a book. I just couldn’t relax enough to concentrate. I was too flooded with adrenaline. I felt paralysed. Precariously perched on a precipice from which I couldn’t escape.
I wasn’t alone in this experience; staff from Christchurch Public Libraries have reported and commented on readers’ inability to read after the traumatic quakes. Comments from various sources indicated that some people found they were unable to concentrate enough to read for pleasure because of the stress they were under. The Christchurch City Libraries (CCL) addressed this specifically in a blog post (March 2011) and suggested alternatives, including crosswords and magazines. When libraries reopened after the earthquakes, staff saw magazine issues increased by over 30% (Howard, 2013).
I get it. Just flicking through magazines was about all I felt up to, and art and imagery have always been a passion of mine. It was near the end of my therapy that I came across a painting by Colin McCahon through DigitalNZ. The simple words in this piece spoke to me in a way a book could not. I had been scared for so long, but I had not fallen in the quakes. I’d stayed standing as the earth moved at twice the speed of gravity. I’d thought and reacted quickly (once I defrosted). I looked after my daughter; and our family was ok. We still are. I had stood up, I had continued. I fell only after we were safe. This painting helped me see that, and it helped me recognise that I could continue, and that this state of being would pass and that eventually I was going to be ok.
Sometime later, having moved from Christchurch to Dunedin, I read about Books on Prescription (BOP), an initiative that began in Wales as a collaboration between GPs and public libraries that had been adopted by WellSouth. It was being rolled out across Otago and Southland. I reflected on my own experience of therapy and how the book at the time had not helped me, but I wanted to support this initiative and after reading about the programme in the UK and the evidence base for bibliotherapy I was keen to investigate whether is was something we could set up at the University of Otago Library.
At the time I was working at the University’s Health Sciences Library, and I asked if we could host a collection of the books thinking, as a medical library, we should have these as a teaching tool for students who may come across the BOP service on medical placements. We realised that aside from being a potential tool for teaching and learning, the collection had a very important role in therapy for students and staff on campus. While the University Library doesn’t lend to the public, the University has a community of 25 thousand, staff and students, who are eligible to use the library service; as well as the biggest GP practice in Dunedin on our campus, Student Health, who have a team of counsellors. Student Health are making good use of the collection and have prescribed many books to students. A guide was created to complement the collection that can be referred to by staff in their teaching or to student health clinicians when prescribing books.
One of the five ways to wellbeing stays with me most strongly. Give. It is my note to self that in helping others I can help myself. I hope this collection has helped people our community.
Gallagher, Sarah (2016): Hungry for books in a broken city. figshare.
- Carty, S., Thompson, L., Berger, S., Jahnke, K. and Llewellyn, R. (2016), Books on Prescription – community-based health initiative to increase access to mental health treatment: an evaluation. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.
- Gallagher S, Jahnke K, Black J, German R. 2014. Collaborating to enhance opportunities for teaching and learning, and for the well-being of staff and students at the University of Otago. University of Otago General Staff Conference.
- Gallagher, S. K. J., Adams, A., Howard, A., Robertson, D., Reynolds, R., & Winn, C. (2013, November). Libraries and wellbeing in post-earthquake Christchurch. Presented at the Researching the Health Implications of Seismic Events Symposium.