Wardipedia – 27. Books

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The great escape

“There is no friend as loyal as a book” – Ernest Hemingway


Being on an acute ward is a great opportunity to catch up with reading, or embark on what could be a lifetime of reading pleasure. Although many patients, particularly soon after they have been admitted, are too distressed or disoriented by medication to read, books with great pictures are a very amenable form of relaxing and spending mellow time. Further on in their recovery, books are particularly valuable, for leisure and as a source of ‘self-help’ information to help accelerate and sustain their recovery.

But books aren’t only about reading. Particularly when someone is feeling too distracted, or has insufficient literacy, to read, there’s much pleasure to be got from books of exquisite photographs, art, gardening and other mainly visual delights. Magazines are a great alternative and very conducive to chatting about what’s in them. (And a source of pictures for scrapbooks, life-story work, ward displays etc.)

And books don’t have to be read by the person to be enjoyed. Being read to is a lifelong pleasure and one of the reasons why reading groups (see below) are so popular. Audiobooks are wonderful, and given how many patients have MP3 players, listening to a book is an excellent alternative to music or reading. E-books are the new format in town, and we expect that many patients in the future will arrive with, or have a friend bring in, their Kindle loaded with a rich choice of reading. We’d love to hear about wards that provide e-books for patients, and there’s an inspiring article below about how a school has successfully introduced these.

For some patients, it’s really helpful to read novels about people coping with mental illness. (Wikipedia has a sound list.) For others, it’s enough to cope with being ill and in hospital without immersing themselves more in the topic, and a light, easy book (like the delightful Number One Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith is the perfect escape.

Ward examples

Books on the ward

  • There is a selection of books available on all the wards aimed at the particular population of patients who use that ward. For instance, the ward for Older People with dementia has a range of large coffee table books containing photos of local landmarks or significant historical events which not only aid reminiscence but also give the lounge area more of a homely feel and provide visitors and patients with something to discuss. In addition there is a well-stocked library in the O.T. Department which is run on an informal basis i.e. take a book, return it or replace it with another one and includes both light reading and self-help titles.
  • Borrowed books can be returned or replaced with another one
  • Staff bringing in their good condition, once-read books for patients.
  • A mobile library system which can be wheeled about.
  • Ward for Older People with dementia has a range of large coffee table books containing photos of local landmarks or significant historical events which not only aid reminiscence but also give the lounge area more of a homely feel and provide visitors and patients with something to discuss.
  • Two patients have organised the ward library, despite previously avoiding working with others.  They told staff that it has felt really nice to have a role.
  • Small library of books, from the Well Read Collection a list of self help resources / books developed by local  library services.
  • Social activities room has library with novels (shelved alphabetically by author!!), lots of lovely travel, wildlife and other photo books, health etc. Also easy read books.
  • Large print books
  • A volunteer brings in a trolley of used books each week and sells them at a very cheap price. Money raised goes towards ward activity resources.
  • Self-help book library – particularly the ‘CBT-based Overcoming’ series.
  • Culturally appropriate – and not just in the multi-faith room! Staff and visitors, as well as patients, can recommend (and ideally donate!) books from their own homeland and communities.
  • Visitors bring and can take away books.
  • Patients’ shop/café well-stocked with exchangeable books
  • For patients in the de-escalation suite, staff and patients bring books, games, crosswords, and when the patient is sufficiently settled, a radio.
  • The hospital has two libraries, both of which are accessible by all patients. These can be accessed twenty-four hours a day.

Local libraries

  • Most service users have a current local library card and are encouraged to go to town to access this service
  • Volunteers from local Libraries attending and giving service users the opportunity to borrow books etc.
  • Mobile library from the council visits fortnightly.
  • ‘Books on prescription’ – strong links with local libraries who use a mobile library and patients and staff can order the books they want.
  • Visiting librarian talks to patients about their interests then suitable books are delivered.
  • Library cards for individual patients and ward library card.
  • The ‘Next Chapter’ community book group is for people who enjoy reading or listening to stories and poems. It’s for members of the local community who are living with or recovering from mental health problems.


  • A well attended Book Club
  • All patients, regardless of their ability to hear or not, are given the opportunity to take part in the Six Book Challenge. This is an on-going strategy that awards a certificate when six books (at any level) have been read and a short book review written.
  • Involvement of the Reader in Residence in the development of Reading Groups within Inpatients.
  • Even a short piece of poetry or a short story can generate so much discussion and there is something about these shared reading groups that really flatten the hierarchy.
  • ‘Read Aloud’ group. Participants are encouraged to reflect on what they have read or heard and discuss how it connects with their experiences. They are also encouraged to write creatively in response to the material they’ve just read. The sessions are facilitated by freelance actors and writers, NHS staff and people with lived experience of mental ill health.
Reading Groups at Prospect Park Hospital
Two wards in Prospect Park Hospital (Berkshire Healthcare Foundation Trust) are running reading groups, in partnership with The Reader Organisation to provide reading groups.These shared read aloud groups are suitable for all abilities thanks to their trained facilitator who warmly encourages people to linger over sentences and words. During these 90 minute sessions, no-one feels under pressure to comment. And yes, the sessions really are one and a half hours long. It’s fascinating that the hospital’s experience is that even acutely ill patients manage, in the main, to concentrate or at least to comfortably manage to be part of the group for the whole time.The groups read both classic and modern texts, including novels, short stories, poems, plays and non-fiction.That’s a pretty comprehensive range of genres! And means that many patients will be discovering very different types of writing than they’re familiar with. Each session always includes a story and a poem and the chance for people to read aloud if they’d like to.An important factor in the groups’ huge popularity among patients and staff is that the facilitator (who is trained by The Reader Organisation) liaises closely with the nurse consultant, occupational therapists and ward staff so that the groups are well advertised. The ideal group size is between six and ten people, and staff are active, not just ‘observing’, participants.Prospect Park’s Sue McLaughlin says that the benefits for people taking part in the groups include:
  • patients spending some time off the ward
  • a safe, relaxing, therapeutic environment
  • the pleasure of shared reading
  • an opportunity for self-expression
  • irrelevance of status as staff or patient in the midst of being absorbed in the texts
  • a great sense of achievement and of being involved in something worthwhile.
  • intense engagement with other people, about issues of considerable emotional importance and complexity
  • the lasting impact of the group, with conversations continuing and involving other people who weren’t there. Some patients take away copies of the texts, to reread by themselves or share with others.


Types of books

  • Quick Read books, short stories and poetry
  • Books written by Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) authors or of particular interest to BME patients, including in local community languages
  • Adult easy reading books by black writers and materials (stories, life skills) suitable for people learning English
  • The holy books of each faith
  • Non-fiction such as history, biography, politics, social affairs, religion etc
  • Self-help resources, including from Rethink Mental Illness and the Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • Books with a lesbian or gay theme
  • Books with a strong visual element eg photographs of wildlife, gardening, cities…
  • Graphic novels, comics and magazines

Reading events

  • Author readings
  • Creative writing workshops
  • Community storytelling
  • Participation in world book day
  • Reading groups
  • Talks from local librarians, encouraging library membership and usage, and providing library cards for patients before they leave hospital

Getting books

  • Libraries
  • Staff (across hospital, not just ward staff), visitors donating
  • Book swap events
  • Charity shops
  • Car boot sales

Patient Examples

  • There’s always lots of newspapers and magazines on the ward that patients buy every day. Everyone seems happy about sharing them.
  • One of the staff bought in newspapers on a Sunday morning.
  • I read a self help book which was given to me by a member of staff. Not only did I understand myself more but reading it really helped improve my concentration.
  • I wasn’t able to read much when on the ward but since then have found poetry and books really helpful, both self help and literature.
  • At the beginning I found listening to music or burying my head in books the most helpful – I guess as a form of escapism.

Recommendations from The Reading Agency

  • The Beach Café by Lucy Diamond
  • Being Human by Neil Astley
  • The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde
  • Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani
  • Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
  • Couch Fiction by Philippa Perry
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
  • Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord
  • Life According to Lubka by Laurie Graham
  • Life with the Lid Off by Nicola Hodgkinson
  • A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
  • Men at Work by Mike Gayle
  • Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
  • Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
  • Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
  • A Spot of Bother byMark Haddon
  • Tackling Life by Charlie Oatway
  • That Awkward Age by Roger McGough
  • To the Moon and Back by Jill Mansell
  • Trouble on the Heath by Terry Jones
  • A Winter Book byTove Jansson

You might also like to try . . .

  • Stop What You’re Doing and Read This – Various contributors
  • Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
  • Waterlog by Roger Deakin
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Readers contributed these additional ideas:
  • The Grimble Series by Clement Freud
  • The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
  • Old Filth by Jane Gardam
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Narrow Dog to Carcassonne by Terry Darlington
  • Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives by Saskia Wieringa
  • The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Just William Series by Richmal Crompton
  • Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  • Bird Cloud by Annie Proulx
  • Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo
  • All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
  • Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling
  • Selected Poems by Langston Hughes
  • The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
  • The Bible
  • Middlemarch by George Elliot

Do let us know what your mood-boosting books are – we’d love to hear about them.


Categories: Activities, Wardipedia