Bibliotherapy, a Mumbai-based mental health initiative, blends book club with support group

Sneha Rawlani and Apurupa Vatsalya knew each other for only three days before they decided to come together and start Bibliotherapy, a book club named after the therapeutic practice of using books as part of treatment for psychological disorders. Both having previously been initiated into the worlds of mental health and therapy, found a commonality in their shared love for books and longing for a non-judgemental space conducive to mental health.

Rawlani, a counsellor on her way to becoming a therapist, realising that professional help is not easily accessible to everyone, was thinking of a book club centred around mental health when she met Vatsalya, a sex educator and trainer, who was reflecting on the power of reading as a self-help tool. “We wanted to create a means to facilitate self-help but with the added support of a group of peers, to which we could bring our personal and professional experience”, the duo tell Firstpost over email, adding: “We think reading and writing can inherently be therapeutic – words can be an escape, they can be soothing and healing, they can help articulate abstract things that don’t make sense (and more!).”

 Bibliotherapy, a Mumbai-based mental health initiative, blends book club with support group

Apurupa Vatsalya and Sneha Rawlani, founders of Bibliotherapy. Photo courtesy Bibliotherapy.

Every month, they organise sessions of limited capacity in Mumbai. While they eventually plan to expand to literature more broadly, for now, their focus is on self-help books. They believe these to be most useful to a book club related to mental health, since non-fiction provides their readers with information and tools that they can then discuss and understand, with the goal of action. “While the first step is to read the book and gain the information, it doesn’t always make sense in the context of one’s personal circumstances or one might disagree with certain ideas, so this is also a space to critique and make meaning out of information in the books – and beyond”. So far, they have discussed Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade, with Tasha Eurich’s Insight next on their reading list.

However, their sessions go a step further than just book discussions. “This space involves two modalities – one is reading and analysing theories, the other is talking and listening within a supportive community.” They also add the component of calling upon their experience as mental health professional and educator to facilitate the meetings in a safe and structured way, which is something the participants appreciate. Meghna Shetty, one of the attendees, says about the session: “I loved that we had confidentiality established before the start of the session, definitely an important way to ease away any kind of inhibition. Having a definite structure to the discussion added more meaning and nuanced the conversation tremendously.”

While discussing the concepts in the book, they intersperse sessions with therapy-based exercises for participants to better understand those concepts. Another participant, Arun Kale, explains his experience: “We spoke about The Defining Decade by Meg Jay, dissected and discussed the different sections in the book and how they relate to our own lives and what we can learn or take away from it. There was also a session at the end where we did a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) exercise that was designed to help us make and evaluate our decisions more deliberately. It’s always nice to discuss books, mental health, and self-care with people from different backgrounds who are open to discussion and [are] non-judgmental.”

Rawlani and Vatsalya place Bibliotherapy in the space between self-help and therapy. While support groups also exist in this area, they describe themselves as "an alternative for those who are not ready to be as vulnerable in a group, whilst also providing the knowledge and tools to independently support oneself.” While their initiative isn’t an alternative to formal therapy, they do encourage participants to open up and be honest, and make themselves accessible for people with more questions, whilst keeping the discussion primarily grounded in the book.

A Bibliotherapy meeting in session.

A Bibliotherapy meeting in session. Photo courtesy Bibliotherapy.

Through Bibliotherapy, Rawlani and Vatsalya are creating a space for community healing, which they think is of prime significance: “Addressing mental health and self-improvement as a community is about creating safe spaces for people to come together, share their experiences, learn from one another and feel less alone on their healing journey. In India, collectivist values are deeply ingrained in us and such spaces reclaim our culture’s narrative of mental health care.”

Creating this accessible space with the specific intent of discussing mental health is an important endeavour, given the genuine scarcity of mental health amenities in the country. “Currently in India, there’s a shortage of mental health workers – according to the Bridge the Care Gap Initiative there’s only one mental health professional for 100,000 people! That’s appalling. Quality mental health care is usually accessible only to the privileged due to high costs and also cultural stigma. A rights-based approach to mental health is definitely the need of the hour.”

The problem, however, goes deeper than inaccessibility, the duo explains: “Beyond the availability and accessibility of formal intervention, there is a general lack of education and awareness around mental health. While only some might have mental illnesses, everyone has mental health. While it [is] often viewed as a binary – that is, one is either mentally ill or not – mental health is a spectrum, and we all as human beings will have different aspects of our mental health to work on through the course of our lives. And mental well-being manifests across all aspects of our lives – work, relationships, identity, politics, and more. This calls for more education and awareness on how to care for one’s mental health.”

This is what motivated them to create the space that Bibliotherapy is. “In the same vein, the variety and quantity of mediums and spaces that one can seek to aid mental health are limited. Through this space we want to provide another option.” The duo’s sessions run at Colaba and Bandra in Mumbai, at Rupees 250 or 300 for one session and 700 for three. Moving forward, they are also looking at offering discounts and scholarship seats per session, and thinking of allowing remote participation, in a bid to be more accessible. They have plans of eventually including a broader range of reading, from books focusing on specific mental health conditions to articles and even videos that they can discuss in their sessions.

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Updated Date: Jun 13, 2019 14:36:11 IST