W hen the pandemic struck , in March 2020, Anne Boulton was already feeling overwhelmed. She was pursuing a PhD at Laurentian University, which meant teaching in the English department and spending her days at home reviewing readings on literature and psychoanalysis for her thesis. But personal issues were bubbling just below the surface. “When COVID happened,” she says, “suddenly you were faced with your own isolation.” She wanted to better address the strain she was dealing with.
Boulton contacted Hoi Cheu, her supervisor at Laurentian. Besides teaching literary theory, Cheu is a trained marriage and family therapist: he has drawn on his experience in both areas to offer therapeutic support, on and off, for about thirty years. He also trained in bibliotherapy, using his dual background in psychology and literary studies to recommend specific texts for people coping with life challenges from loneliness to mental illness.
Bibliotherapy is premised on the idea that books can be healing tools. It can occur in individual or group settings, though the main distinction is between clinical bibliotherapy, where texts, including fiction and nonfiction, are recommended by a clinical therapist, and nonclinical bibliotherapy, as practised by a facilitator such as a librarian. Though not a stand-alone clinical practice in Canada, clinical bibliotherapy is a method used by professionals who already have certification in counselling, therapy, and clinical therapy and want to help patients seeking an additional outlet. Nonclinical bibliotherapy can’t replace professional help for patients with mental illnesses; instead, it is often used in conjunction with other forms of clinical therapy.