How reading can be an effective strategy to improve mental wellbeing in schools and colleges

When faced with the need to improve and look after our mental health, the first things that often come to mind are often exercise and reading. The relationship between reading and improved mental health is often repeated, often cited and often misunderstood. It is salient to unpick the importance of reading in relation to mental wellbeing. Getting it right can have a noticeable impact on staff and students at your school or college.

Within this post I will be looking at:

  1. Why is mental health and wellbeing important? 
  2. What is the impact of not tackling mental health in adolescence? 
  3. How can reading help?
  4. What we can do to help facilitate reading as a tool to support mental wellbeing?
1) Why is mental health and wellbeing important?

Mental health problems are one of the most significant issues which schools in the UK are having and will have to deal with (Department of Health, 2015). However, this issue is not limited to schools; the Prime Minister said in May 2017 that mental ill health was one of the “greatest social challenges of our time”. Furthermore, Green et al (2005) reflected that roughly 10% of children in any classroom could have a diagnosable mental health condition. This figure is likely to have increased during the last sixteen years. This is reflected across other high-income countries where there is an estimated 8-18% prevalence of psychiatric disorders in school-aged children (Costello et al., 2005). 

However, with these figures there is an overfocus on mental ill health using clinical definitions rather than the broader topic of mental wellbeing. Equally, Green et al. and Costello et al. analysis is limited in its scope and does not convey the true story – whilst three pupils in every classroom may suffer from mental health issues, only one in three will receive some form of treatment (Paulus et al., 2016). Irrespective of numbers, teachers across the country are reporting that student mental health is ‘at crisis point’ (Weale, 2019).

Post pandemic there is a greater need than ever for schools to work hard to support positive mental wellbeing. In July 2020 data showed that one in six children aged 5 to 16 years were identified as having a probable mental disorder. To put this into context, that is five children in a class of 30 children. This has increased significantly since 2017. Young women (27%) were more likely than young men (13%) to have a probable mental disorder (ONS, 2020).

2) What is the impact of not tackling mental health and wellbeing in adolescence?

The impact of not tackling mental health in adolescence is significant; there are clear and direct links between mental health issues and educational under-achievement, which ultimately then impacts further upon mental health and life chances (Riglin et al., 2013). Furthermore, the prevalence of mental health problems in adolescence further increases the likelihood of psychiatric disorders in later life (Trzesniewski et al., 2006). 

This analysis is however too simplistic. It is not just that poor mental health in adolescence leads to poor mental health in later life; rather, numerous studies show life chances are significantly reduced in all areas, including more risk-taking behaviour, criminal activity, lower chances of economic development and so on (Kim-Cohen et al., 2003; Whear et al., 2014; Ramey et al., 1998). Therefore, clearly, the time to tackle mental health issues is in adolescence and schools therefore must play a central role in this intervention (Goodman and Goodman, 2011). 

3) How can reading help?

There are clear and well researched links between the impact of reading on mental wellbeing, summarised below: 

  • Dr David Lewis asserted that reading as little as six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by 60% (MHFA, 2018). 
  • Soheli Begum has argued that the escapism element of reading is underappreciated and shows in her study that it can have a clear link to mental wellbeing (Begum, 2011).
  • Greater levels of empathy, which directly influences mental wellbeing, have been identified in those who read vs. those who don’t (Kidd and Castano, 2013). 
  • Reading leads to greater cognitive development, which in turn allows greater levels of self-awareness and recognition of your own mental wellbeing (Stanovich, 1993). 

There is, therefore, a significant body of evidence which supports promoting reading to improve mental wellbeing. However, as asserted at the beginning, it is too simplistic to suggest that if everyone picked up a book their wellbeing would improve. 

What we can do to help facilitate reading as a tool to support mental wellbeing
Other ways to support mental health and wellbeing in schools and colleges

At Minds Ahead, we believe that a whole school and college approach is needed to support the mental health and wellbeing of the whole school community. Staff members taking our qualifications develop frameworks and strategies that draw on the latest academic research from around the globe but are tailored to their particular setting’s unique needs. 

They develop the confidence and skills to effectively support mental health needs of pupils, staff and parents in their school community which they practice alongside studying. The benefits to the whole school community are felt immediately. 


Begum, S. (2011), ‘Readers’ advisory and underestimated roles of escapist reading’, Library Review, Vol. 60, No. 9, pp. 738-747.

Costello, E.J., Egger, H., Angold, A. (2005), 10-year research update review: the epidemiology of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders: I. Methods and public health burden. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 44, pp. 972–86.

Department of Health and NHS England (2015), Future in mind – Promoting, protecting and improving our children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing [Online], Department of Health and NHS England.  [Accessed on 26th January 2021].

Green, J., Howes, F., Waters, E., Maher, E., Oberklaid, F. (2005) Promoting the social and emotional health of primary school-aged children, reviewing the evidence base for school-based interventions. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, 7 (3), pp.30–36.

Goodman, A., Goodman R. (2011), Population mean scores predict child mental disorder rates: validating SDQ prevalence estimators in Britain. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 52, pp. 100–08.

Kidd, D. C., and Castano, E., (2013) ‘Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind’, Science, Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377-380.

Kim-Cohen, J., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T.E., Harrington, H., Milne, B.J, Poulton, R. Prior Juvenile Diagnoses in Adults With Mental Disorder: Developmental Follow-Back of a Prospective-Longitudinal Cohort. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003, 60 (7) pp.709–717.

Paulus, F. W., Ohmann, S. and Popow, C. (2016), Practitioner Review: School-based interventions in Child Mental Health. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57, pp. 1337–1359. [Accessed 3rd May 2020].

Ramey, C.T., Ramey, S.L., In defense of special education. American Psychology Journal. 53, pp. 1159–60.

Riglin, L., Frederickson, N., Shelton, K.H., Rice, F. (2013) A longitudinal study of psychological functioning and academic attainment at the transition to secondary school. Journal of Adolescence, 36, pp. 507–17.

Stanovich, K. E., (1993), Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence, Adv Child Dev Behav. 24, pp. 133-180. 

Timmins, S, (2018), ‘Why Reading Can Be Good for Mental Health’. (Accessed on 25th January 2021). 

Trzesniewski K.H., Donnellan, M.B., Moffitt, T.E., Robins R.W., Poulton, R., Caspi, A. (2006), Low self-esteem during adolescence predicts poor health, criminal behavior, and limited economic prospects during adulthood. Developmental Psychology Journal. 42, pp. 381–90.

Office of National Statistics, ‘Mental Health of Children and Young People in the Pandemic’. (Accessed on 27th June 2021). 

Weale, S., (2019), Mental health of pupils is ‘at crisis point’, teachers warn, Guardian, 17th April 2019. [Accessed on 26th January 2021).

Whear, R., Marlow, R., Boddy, K., et al. (2014), Psychiatric disorder or impairing psychology in children who have been excluded from school: a systematic review. School Psychology International. 35, 5, pp. 30–43.