Karen Napier, CEO of The Reading Agency, explains how the national charity’s Reading Well programme is tackling life’s big challenges through the proven power of reading.

Recent research from our World Book Night campaign shows that reading is proving more important than ever as the nation adjusts to life in lockdown. Nearly 1 in 3 people surveyed last month told us they are reading more in social isolation than ever before, with the percentage even higher for young people at 1 in 2. The BBC has reported evidence from libraries of a 63% surge in online library loans of e-books, e-magazines and audiobooks compared to this time last year.

At The Reading Agency, we work every day to tackle life’s big challenges through the proven power of reading. Programmes such as Reading Well Books on Prescription really can make a difference – developed in partnership with libraries, health experts and people with lived experience, it drives a powerful community-based health offer delivering real benefits.

What is Reading Well?

Reading Well is a national books on prescription programme, delivered through public libraries, that helps people to understand and manage their health and wellbeing using quality endorsed reading. Recommended books can be ‘prescribed’ by GPs, link workers, or any other health, social care or voluntary sector professional, and accessed free of charge in public libraries across England and Wales. The books are also available on the open shelves of the library for anyone to borrow without a ‘prescription’. This innovative reading and health programme is delivered by The Reading Agency in partnership with Libraries Connected, supported with funding from Arts Council England and Welsh Government.

With libraries currently closed due to Covid-19, many of the Reading Well titles are still available to borrow as e-books and audiobooks through online library catalogues and e-lending apps. They are also available to buy from online retailers. Prescribers can continue to recommend books using our digital user leaflets and readers can find details of how to join the library on their local library website.

Since its inception in 2013, Reading Well has developed a full complement of endorsing health partners and launched five schemes on the library shelves, including the newly unveiled Reading Well for children booklist supporting the wellbeing of children aged 7-11. Alongside support for children and their caregivers, the programme offers helpful reading on adult and young people’s mental health, dementia, and the self-management of long term conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

 The need

One in four adults in the UK struggle with their mental health each year, and one in eight 5 to 19 year olds have been diagnosed with at least one mental health condition. Mental health problems represent the single largest cause of disability in the UK. The impact of this is far reaching, both for the individuals affected as well as family and friends. Mental health affects every aspect of life: relationships, education, work life and physical health; 30% of all people with a long term physical health condition have also experienced a mental health problem.

And our new Covid-19 reality poses new and unprecedented challenges to our wellbeing. New ONS data shows that more than 4 in 5 (84.2%) Brits are worried about the effect that the Covid-19 pandemic is having on their life, with over half (53.1%) saying it was affecting their wellbeing and nearly half (46.9%) reporting high levels of anxiety.

How can reading help?

Books and reading are not and can never be the only answer to this pressing need, but they can be part of the solution when delivered through quality assured programmes such as Reading Well, which is available through the safe and accessible community resource of the public library.

Reading Well has delivered massive reach to over 1.2 million people so far, and has created real evidence of patient and practitioner benefit. In a recent survey, 90% of people who borrowed a Reading Well book said that it had been helpful, and 89% of health professionals valued the scheme as a resource that helps them support people outside of consultation time. GP Clare Etheringon has said, “I think books can be starting points for things that are difficult to discuss…A GP gets 10 minutes with a patient if you’re lucky, and you can’t do everything. It’s useful to have resources so that, if you run out of time, you can say: ‘Go and check this out.’”

 One of our Reading Well for children titles, Something Bad Happened, has proved particularly pertinent at this time, providing comfort, support and action plans to help children cope with worrying world events. 

Quality endorsement

Reading Well works because every title meets the highest quality standard of a rigorous book selection process shaped by need, evidence and clinical guidance. It’s a process that’s endorsed by health professionals, with partners such as the Royal College of GPs, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Public Health England and NHS England’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme involved in selecting books for the scheme. It’s also driven by genuine co-production principles; we’ve worked closely with people with lived experience on book selection as well as the look, feel, design and language of the scheme. We’ve learned an enormous amount through this process about how to make Reading Well accessible, including the importance of personal stories as a way of guiding readers in.

Reading Well is more than just a booklist – it represents the power of reading to change lives.

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