A Fictional Aide to Mental Health



Stacks of books.

Bella Kim, Co-Editor

Avid readers can spend hours immersed in gripping mysteries, fantastical adventures and comforting classics. However, research shows that there are also psychological benefits to reading fiction novels beyond the entertaining journey of turning the pages of a favorite book.

One benefit is that reading can help us feel more empathetic. Because many fiction novels offer insight into characters’ thoughts and feelings that we do not have in real life, it makes reading a way for us to understand someone else’s emotions, even if that person only exists in the story. It also allows us to experience these emotions in a detached way where we are unaffected. Experiencing emotions second-hand helps us better understand how to cope with complex feelings.

Novels can also help societies get over difficult events, such as wars and pandemics. Most literary works follow a certain plot structure, where the conflict is eventually resolved and the evil beaten. People are reassured when they read books where the culprit is caught and the protagonists find a happy ending, and that gives them hope that they, too, can recover from a difficult time. McAuliffe eighth-grader and book lover Courtney Melancon’s favorite genre is science fiction-fantasy “because I can escape to a new world and forget about everything.”

Additionally, reading fiction books can help ill patients, because it is a way to pass the time when stuck in bed. Fictional stories are usually easier to read, and if you are not feeling well, reading an enjoyable book is preferable to struggling through challenging literature. It also provides an escape from normal life. Reading has helped Melancon get through quarantine. She commented, “I was able to leave my life for hours at a time and that… helped with the restricted feeling that quarantine brought.” To open a book is to fall into another world where you can lose yourself in the story.

Furthermore, studies have shown that reading fiction helps people with conditions such as Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) because it gives them something else to invest in and focus on. Taking their mind off obsessive thoughts or traumatic memories can aid their recovery, and reading about characters going through their own trials can show them that there is always a resolution at the end.

Moreover, entirely one-sided, the story only continues if you keep reading, so you can choose to withdraw from the book if it gets too intense, which is something you cannot do in real life. No matter what you think the character should do, it will not affect the outcome of the book because it has already been written. This can be reassuring because you know that nothing you do will change how the book ends, and it is impossible for you to ruin the story.

Reading is a different experience from watching a movie because to engage in the story, your mind has to be entirely focused. Jane Gregory, a psychologist and guest speaker on The Allusionist podcast episode “A Novel Remedy,” mentioned that “while you’re reading it you have to visualize what’s happening, you have to work out what they mean when they say that, what they might be thinking, what they might be feeling that would lead to that kind of behavior… so you become more invested in it in a way that you might not with television where it can just happen in front of you.” When watching television, you are just viewing the story, whereas when reading, you are participating in the story.

Books might not be the new vaccine, but reading provides a safe escape from life and enables you to feel emotions differently and use your imagination. Overall, this leads to better creativity and a working, healthy mind.