Bombay Showcase

William Shakespeare, psychotherapist

The programme includes video of acting legend Ian McKellen.  

When Marianne Dashwood suffers the slings and arrows of a broken heart in Sense and Sensibility, she does what everyone who has ever faced the malady does: grieves, weeps and hopes for a happier world.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that heartbreak is a way of life. Now, along with Dashwood, 25,000 people around the world are experiencing heartbreak by proxy: reading and learning about characters navigating life issues through a new online course on literature and mental health.

The Jane Austen novel is one of the texts on the reading list for “Literature and mental health: Reading for wellbeing”, a first of its kind free online course offered on the open learning platform of the University of Warwick in the UK.

“How do people cope with heartbreak?” asked Paula Byrne, a Jane Austen scholar who put the programme together, on the phone from Oxford, where she lives. “Can you die of heartbreak?”

‘Heartbreak’ is one of six themes featured in the course. Byrne, and Jonathan Bate, a Shakespeare scholar — both associated with the university — have also homed in other kinds of concerns as refracted through the prism of various canonical literary texts.

These include dementia and aging in Shakespeare’s King Lear, post-traumatic shock through the works of the World War I poets, and bereavement in Hamlet. The course’s crux pivots on this simple question: can literature be put to the service of helping endure life?

The course that began on February 1, amalgamates a lively mix of online discussions, videos, doctors’ inputs, readings and assignments. “The course will consider how poems, plays and novels can help us understand and cope with times of deep emotional strain,” says its introduction.

Requiring an approximately four hours per week as commitment, and offering a certificate at the end, it is one of several free courses offered to online learners by the University of Warwick.

Byrne first began to explore the healing power of books when her daughter fell terribly ill, and she would be waiting at the doctors’ with nothing to read. “I was so stressed myself,” she said, “and rather than reading trash magazines, I thought it might be helpful to have something more hopeful to read.”

Byrne has since then been running a non-profit as well: ReLit, a bibliotherapy-focussed charity.

There is perhaps, no breaking news to offer on the therapeutic power of literature. “Bibliotherapy has been around since ancient times,” said Byrne. “It is not a new idea.”

And yet, according to some, mental health practitioners and medicine have not fully harnessed the potential of ‘reading cure’ as a supplementary tool alongside clinical approaches.

Rachel Kelly, a journalist and writer whose memoir on dealing with depression is one of the readings, said such an initiative was “hugely valuable”. In an email interaction, Kelly said: “More and more people are realising the limitations of solely a drug-based approach to treating mental illness. The arts, and literature in particular, can play a big part in helping people recover from depression.”

Kelly, who has herself written extensively on how poetry rescued her, said literature had “provided one crucial map” which “helped me navigate my life”.

Stories are, after all, powerful cultural tools, by their nature designed to provide deep immersive experiences in other worlds. “This course helps you identify the key books which can tell you a different, consoling story and help you make sense of setbacks,” said Kelly. “…I’ve had lots of feedback from people who have been helped by the course.”

The programme also includes videos of comedian and writer Stephen Fry and acting legend Ian McKellen dwelling on their own experiences with mental health issues. “They happen to be friends,” laughed Byrne, when asked how she managed to get them on board. “They really believed in the subject.”

Fry has long spoken publically about his battle with depression and bipolar disorder, adding one more role to his accomplished resume: that of mental health champion.

In his interview with Bate, he reflects on deriving comfort from poetry and leaning on words through his illness. Writer Melvyn Bragg speaks movingly on reaching out to his Alzheimer’s-affected mother through Wordsworth.

The course itself is meant for anyone with an interest in literature, mental health or both, and has seen interest from Australia, Germany the US, aside from of course, the UK.

Byrne said they had been overwhelmed by the response. “It’s been amazing. It’s been incredible how people have been sharing their stories and talking about how texts have helped them.” The first edition of the course is now in its final week, but Byrne hopes they can roll it out a few times every year.

See for details on future courses.

The author is a freelance writer

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 8:29:17 PM |

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