Can Literature and Poetry Help Us Overcome Depression?

Can Literature and Poetry Help Us Overcome Depression?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

For the Greek, libraries were places that healed the soul. Literature and poetry are therapeutic tools that can help us overcome depression, given that a book is more than a shelter. The combination of letters and thought-provoking worlds is a channel capable of waking up our mind and allowing us to compare, explore, and even be born again, stronger than ever.

But let’s get something straight. Literature won’t make a person overcome depression on its own. This condition, as you may already know, requires a multidisciplinary focus. Finding the right kind of therapy, counseling, and medication and following a healthy diet and lifestyle may help patients who are struggling with it.

“I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not save in nooks and in books.”

-Thomas à Kempis-

The ancient Greeks were right: books are healing tools. During World War I, British hospitals also discovered the benefits of literature. Many soldiers who complained about trauma disorders found the most comforting aid when doctors and nurses made a selection of books available to them.

Literature and poetry can be valuable agents to get our mind back in shape. They’re allies of change. Books are like places that help us heal and find peace when our depressed mind follows the path of chaos. They’re peace pills and well-being boosters.

Girl reading book by the window.

Literature and poetry: Can they really help us overcome depression?

Matt Haig is a British writer that became famous due to his book Reasons to Stay Alive. In this book, he narrates what it was like to suffer from depression for several years. Far from being a self-help book, the author wanted to shed some light on a very specific aspect. Each person must be capable of finding their own strategy, their own vital reason to get away from the darkness, a motivator to be born again, and a key to close the door of depression. His strategy was reading books. More specifically, fiction books.

Haig came to the same conclusion as many psychologists and psychiatrists, although the latter go beyond that. Apart from fiction books, poetry is also an exceptional tool for many patients that suffer from this psychological condition.

Fiction books change your perspective

Reading fiction books makes us feel more human. P eople who suffer from depression are prisoners of a space where they don’t always have control of their thoughts. In this place, whatever they feel is adverse, negative, and self-destructive.

  • Reading fiction books entails changing our perspective in order to have empathy for certain characters.
  • The brain relaxes. The fragmented mind finds peace by connecting with a story, with the details, and with concrete emotions.
  • At the same time, those stories that the main characters experience are filled with changes and change is exactly what people with depression need. 

Therefore, a fiction book offers the possibility to reflect from another point of view. It also offers the possibility to become optimistic and follow our goals, dreams, and desires.

Book with a tree.

“If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves.”

-Franz Kafka-

Poetry to describe the complexity of life

It’s said that the first poem is more than 4.300 years old. It’s an ode to Inanna, an ancient Goddess, by Enheduanna, an Akkadian poetess. Why did this literary style begin to exist? What were the intentions of humans who played with words, rhymes, verses, and beautiful compositions?

According to a publication by the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, poetry allows us to share our emotions. 

In the difficult moments we often experience, we need a language capable of handling those difficulties, turning them into something simple, playing with them, and challenging them. Poetry helps us get things off our chest.

Woman reading.

Literature and poetry as a way of being born again

Although people say that literature and poetry are our shelters, they’re actually our ways out. They’re particular windows we can use to look at the world from. They’re doors that help us come out stronger on the other side.

When you read, you reconstruct yourself. You discover other possibilities and organize your ideas, add new ones, and destroy old ones.

After finishing a novel or reading a poem, something changes inside us. Something heals us and wakes us up to look at ourselves and the world differently, in a wiser and healthier way.

Therefore, let’s not undervalue the power of literature and poetry when it comes to helping overcome depression. They can be great allies.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.