Roughly half of U.S. adults say someone in their family has had a “severe mental health crisis,” according to a 2022 CNN and KFF poll.

In 2024, the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences reported on data showing nearly 1 in 5 adults have had an anxiety disorder in the past year.

To stay mentally healthy, medical professionals suggest going outside, reaching out to friends, doing consistent exercise and more. However, an alternative method to these suggestions is floating around the internet, and it claims it will keep the brain functioning as healthily as it can.

Reading is the alleged solution.

Duane Dougal, a professor of linguistics and computer science at Brigham Young University, called reading’s effect on the brain “psycholinguistics.”

“Reading is the consuming and processing of information through written media,” Dougal told the Deseret News. Different texts “elicit emotional responses based upon their content, form and the receiver’s state and experience.”

One particular therapist has been vocal in how using psycholinguistics with her patients has proven to be beneficial.

Bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud compared literature with other art forms, saying reading gives the brain more of an escape than listening to music, going to an art gallery or watching a movie.

She told the BBC, “With a film or TV show, you’re given the visuals whereas with a novel you’re inventing them yourself, so it’s actually much more of a powerful event, because you’re involved.”

What is ‘bibliotherapy’?

The American Library Association defined bibliotherapy as reading “books selected on the basis of content in a planned reading program designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance.”

Bibliotherapists select books for their patients that have characters similar to them. As the character progresses through the plot, the reader can work through their own emotions cathartically.

Books’ complexities are a product of the human mind’s complexity. Anne Jamison, a literature professor at the University of Utah, told the Deseret News, “The effects of reading are often not what the basic content of a book might suggest.”

“It’s not that books about good, happy people produce good, happy readers, or that books about vile acts or tragic events harm mental health, or that reading about people ‘like us’ necessarily helps us feel included or reading about ‘others’ necessarily helps us be less self-centered (although all of these effects can happen),” she said.

One study published to the American Psychological Association reported on a correlation between bibliotherapy and decreased depressive episodes.

Berthoud has been in the bibliotherapy business for over 10 years. She explained what a bibliotherapy session looks like, writing, “I will guide you to books that put a finger on feelings you may often have had, but perhaps never clearly understood before. I will prescribe you books that open new perspectives, shed light on your life, and re-enchant the world for you.”

Reading helps ‘this whole “being human” business’

Jason Kerr, a scholar of 17th-century literature at Brigham Young University, has a career built on reading.

However, outside of the reading he does for work, Kerr told the Deseret News he gets significant mental health benefits from reading texts with “no real obligations or timelines attached.” For Kerr, enjoyable, nonobligational reading comes in the form of contemporary poetry.

He added, “Novels are a rare luxury; starting one feels like going on vacation.”

Empathizing and relating to other people increases mental health, per the journal Healthcare. Since books are known to teach readers empathy, social psychologist Emanuele Castano at the University of Trento published a study to Science to find whether a specific genre teaches empathy best.

Researchers assigned participants specific excerpts from three genres, including fiction, nonfiction and literary fiction. A separate control group wasn’t assigned anything. After completing the excerpts, each participant took a test assessing their ability to empathize.

Nonfiction, genre fiction and no reading at all produced similar “insignificant” results. However, “scores were significantly higher in the literary fiction condition.”

Castano defined literary fiction as writing that “defamiliarizes its readers.” He compared it with romances and other genres written for entertainment and said literary fiction texts “engage their readers creatively as writers.” Famous examples of literary fiction include books like “Of Mice and Men” and “The Great Gatsby.”

Jamison said studies like these “make intuitive sense to me.”

“Reading literature isn’t likely to directly help us secure more resources, but humans continue to devote time and effort to it, which suggests it has other kinds of benefits,” she said.

Kerr added that difficult, complex reading has mental health benefits of its own. Additionally, theological reading “has helped give me better frameworks for approaching life and my relationships with other people,” he said.

Difficult reading, for Kerr, provides tools “for working through this whole ‘being human’ business.”

How to pick books that improve mental health

Finding books that decrease stress and increase feelings of empathy increases mental health.

Duane told the Deseret News how reading can influence his mood and emotions “in both positive and negative ways.” He explained, keeping his reading rooted “in learning and exploring the real world” gives him a consistently positive experience.

Dougal defined empathy as “a function of experience” and added, reading is an effective way to understand each other better.

“It’s those shared or common experiences, especially when based on reality, that enable connections and emotional bonds and understandings,” he said.

Complicated books, contemporary poetry, religious texts and anything that increases the ability to empathize will increase connection to other people. That connection to others in turn is correlated with increased mental well-being.