A literacy project is being described as the most significant development in mental health practice in the last ten years.

On January 8, I am going to Liverpool, north western England, to take part in a conference organised by Get Into Reading, a hugely inspiring outreach literacy programme run by The Reader Organisation, a charity dedicated to bringing about “a reading revolution”.

Get Into Reading is the brainchild of Jane Davis, founder and director of the Reader Organisation. As an 18-year-old single mother living on state benefits, Ms. Davis discovered her local library, and never looked back. She believes “books can save lives” — believes it so passionately she has, in less than ten years, created an extraordinary movement, with 150 groups now meeting weekly in hospitals, prisons, refugee centres, children’s homes, libraries, YMCAs, day centres and homes for older people. They are spread throughout the north-west of England and in London, with more springing up around the U.K. and a recent commission to develop the project in Australia.

These are not “book groups”, where people come together to discuss a book they have read; they are reading groups, led by trained Get Into Reading project workers, who read the texts aloud, with group members joining in as much or as little as they wish. Interruptions are encouraged and often lead to spontaneous sharing of life experience.

Texts include novels, short stories, poems, plays and works of non-fiction. And there is no dumbing down: Shakespeare, Chekhov and Milton have all been devoured, as well as works by contemporary writers such as Mitch Albom and Frank Cottrell Boyce.

And while nothing is prescribed, or proscribed, the emphasis is on “great” literature — Tolstoy, say, rather than Agatha Christie.

Nothing wrong with Agatha Christie, but the aim is to banish the sense some people have that great literature is not for them, that it belongs to academics in English departments.

That is why the term a “reading revolution” is wholly appropriate. The storming of what Doris Lessing has described as “a treasure house of literature” is every bit as significant as the storming of the Winter Palace. Time was I might have thought this an overstatement. We have free public libraries, after all. There is nothing to stop people reading great books. Or is there?

As a child of academic parents, it would never have occurred to me that I needed permission to read any book (TV was a different matter), but the mental health system is packed with people who have suffered their whole lives from the failure of others to recognise and respond to them as thinking, feeling, intelligent human beings. Parents, teachers and society in general have repeatedly reinforced the message that the doors to the treasure house are barred to the likes of them. Unfortunately, much mental health treatment does little to challenge it.

Thankfully, there are signs this is starting to change. David Fearnley, a forensic psychiatrist at Ashworth high security hospital on Merseyside, Liverpool, runs a Get Into Reading group with patients. Books read include (delightfully) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Dr. Fearnley — the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ 2009 Psychiatrist of the Year — is unambiguous about the benefits. “Get Into Reading is one of the most significant developments to have taken place in Mersey Care [health board] and mental health practice in the last 10 years,” he says.

Last word, though, should go to a dementia sufferer, who commented on reading poetry: “It moves you. I mean, it hits you inside where it meets you and means something.” It is a line the greatest of literary greats would rightly be proud to come up with. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

(Clare Allan is an author and writes on mental health issues)

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