As links between literacy and depression become clear, why reading matters

Kelsi Farrington

Research reveals that children in England have less positive attitudes to reading than some European counterparts, while a third of adults don’t read for pleasure. We know this affects wellbeing, so can we make reading appealing again?

Literacy helps us access many forms of mainstream education and is a form of creative escapism too. “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free,” US anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass is quoted to have said.

But, statistics from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study suggest that the proportion of English children with a positive attitude towards reading is significantly lower than in other countries, including Georgia, Romania and Azerbaijan. What is more, an estimated 36 per cent of adults in England do not read for pleasure and in people aged 16-24, this is even higher, 44 per cent.

With reading also linked to improved mental health and resilience against depression, these facts have not gone unnoticed. This week’s #LovetoRead weekend is part of a campaign by the BBC to put reading at the centre of their programming this autumn. Charities, libraries and publishers are also getting involved, including London-based charity The Reading Agency. The organisation helps readers of all ages improve their literacy skills, and will hold an event at the British Museum in London with BBC Radio 1 presenter Gemma Cairney this evening to encourage and celebrating the joy of reading. “I love words and their power,” says Cairney. “I love connecting people through books.”

Children at The Reading Agency's Summer Challenge, Deptford Library, London

Young readers at The Reading Agency’s Summer Challenge – Deptford Library, London. Image: Dave Warren

“We asked Gemma to take part in this year’s event for many reasons,” explains Sue Wilkinson, CEO of The Reading Agency. “She is a wonderful advocate for the power and importance of reading and we are very keen to hear her thoughts on how we might encourage more young people to read more – with all the life benefits we know that can bring. Gemma has also been active in an area which is very important to us: mental health.”

This is the fifth in a series of annual events organised by The Reading Agency that invite leading writers and public figures to share original ideas about the future of reading in the UK. Gemma Cairney follows in the footsteps of authors Jeanette Winterson and Neil Gaiman, comedian and TV personality Russell Brand, and politician and former director of civil rights campaign group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti.

Reading takes you out of yourself and introduces you to new people, new communities and new worlds

Cairney’s new book, Open: A Toolkit for How Magic and Messed Up Life Can Be, will be released in March and aims to offer honest life advice for young people.

“We’re really interested to hear Gemma’s views on how reading can support mental health and wellbeing,” says Wilkinson. “It builds on her work on Radio 1’s [weekly advice show] The Surgery and will give people a sneak preview of what will be in her book.”

The Reading Agency runs schemes hand in hand with libraries including the Reading Well program for 13-18 year olds. Designed to help young people understand and manage common mental health issues, it gathers a list of recommended books which are then made available in local libraries. The libraries involved report the titles have been loaned out 263 per cent more frequently since the scheme was launched in April. Wilkinson suggests this demonstrates a clear need among young people for support and advice on this subject.

“We believe that everything changes when we read,” she says. “Reading takes you out of yourself and introduces you to new people, new communities and new worlds. It’s proven to be a more powerful factor in life achievement than a reader’s socioeconomic background and it is associated with higher levels of empathy and improved relationships with others. These benefits are increased if you enjoy reading, so it’s not about what you read: the important thing is that you read in a way that feels right for you, and that you enjoy it.”

This evening’s event will discuss the role reading has played in Cairney’s life, the barriers faced by those who struggle to read, and explore young people’s experiences of mental health challenges.

The event takes place at 7pm, Friday 4 November in the Conference Centre, the British Library. Contact The Reading Agency here to reserve a free place.

Find out more about Gemma Cairney’s book, Open: A Toolkit for How Magic and Messed Up Life Can Be here.

Main image: Will Bembridge/The Reading Agency

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