Reading is often seen as a solitary activity, but socialworkers, clients with mental health conditions and children in care, are amongthose reaping the benefits of read-aloud groups that get staff and patientsreading together.
The Reader Organisation, a charity and social enterprise, runs around 300 read-aloudgroups across the country (find your nearest one here). Groups take place in a range of settings fromdrop-in groups held in libraries, to projects run in secure mental health units,day centres, prisons and care homes.
Mary Weston, mental health project manager at The Reader, explainsthat shared reading groups are more than simply book clubs. For most mentalhealth projects, mental health trusts employ a full-time ‘reader in residence’to lead each group and train staff so that they can takeover facilitating thegroups in time.
‘We team up with staff and train them up at the same time,’Mary says. ‘A lot of the time we work with occupational therapists andpsychotherapists. We have one or two social workers allied to the team and wehave projects with social work departments where we work with looked afterchildren.’
The groups bring patients together ‘in quite a human way,rather than a patient-expert way,’ Mary says. There is no pressure on anyone toread, and no weighty critiques or literary analysis expected. Instead the emphasis is on’enjoying a text together’ and allowing people to benefit from it in their ownway.
‘Everybody gets what they get out of it as an individual,’ Marysays. ‘But we do find different things tend to happen in different groups. In asecure setting, or groups where a lot of people have been diagnosed with apersonality disorder, the good outcomes that we’re seeing are people learningto take turns in discussions, learning how to share the floor for example.’
‘Where people are depressed and anxious, it’s often thefriendship, meeting and getting together with other people to have meaningfuldiscussions rather than just small talk. You’re talking about a text so it’s notpersonal – it means people can go as far as they want in terms of sharing theirown experiences.’
Mary admits that building a group can take time and engagingstaff with the groups is crucial to winning over patients – some of whom are scepticalat first. She is in the early stages of running a group in a rehab setting with people whohave had enduring mental illnesses, and says that take-up is good after a difficult start.
‘On the first day people came in, would see my face,and run out of the room. And my face isn’t great but it isn’t that bad either!’, she laughs.
‘We do depend on staff having good relations with people as word of mouth helps and wedo shamelessly use cake and things like that to entice people along! But oncepeople come they often like it. I remember one person telling me: “‘It’s notwhat you think it would be like…It’s good!”‘
It is a situation familiar to Megg Hewlett, a project workerfor The Reader Organisation who runs a series of read-aloud groups in London.
Megg says the growing interest in shared reading groups is encouraging – she is in the process of setting up groups in two London prisons, while The Reader Organisation is about to host its third national conference. But Megg says she is most pleased with the feedback from group members, compiled in interviews she conducted with people that have attended weekly read-aloud groups in libraries in west London.
In one interview a man who, in his words, had ‘several breakdowns, self harm, anxiety and depression’, said the following:
‘Oneof my goals in coming to the group was to ‘reinvent’ myself, to find anidentity that I was comfortable with and to be defined by something other thanbeing a mental health service user. Iwanted to consolidate and integrate a lot of things that I have been working onand developing in myself over many years.
‘Book Break has helped me do this. The positive feedback I have received from other group members hashelped my build self esteem. I amstarting to enjoy myself and even beginning to believe I, too, am an okperson. People find me interesting andlike my humour. The group has helped mechange the negative opinion of myself, an opinion I have had all my life.‘