Applying a new model of bibliotherapy to improve the mental well-being of asylum seekers and refugees
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Leeds
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Clinical Sciences
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
Summary of the impact
Durrant's research on the therapeutic potential of literature as a way of
working through trauma led to the creation of a unique model of
bibliotherapy. The application of this model within three Leeds and
Bradford organisations had significant impact on the mental well-being of
asylum seekers and refugees and increased the capacity for organisations
to provide effective and sustainable therapeutic services. The success of
these initiatives led to further public and third-sector collaborations
and the model being adopted by a range of health, education, public and
charitable organisations both nationally and internationally.
Since his appointment to Leeds in 2000, Durrant's research has concerned
literature as a way of working through trauma in dealing with the legacies
of slavery, colonialism, and other racial oppression. In a monograph and
article [1, 2], he showed how literature creates community not by
transcending racial difference but by memorialising the histories of
racism that continue to structure social relations. This led him, in 
and , to a reconsideration of two terms key to both literary and
clinical approaches to trauma: empathy and identification. Durrant showed
how relative positions of power place limits on the ability to empathise.
While literature cannot grant unlimited access to the minds of others, it
can make us aware of bodily suffering. He proposed that, by bringing
readers into proximity with physical suffering, literature produces a form
of compassionate solidarity Durrant termed `corporeal community' .
A favourable review of Durrant's book in Modern Fiction Studies
(51.3, Fall 2005) asked how the literary production of a sense of
community translated into the formation of actual communities. As a
response to this question and building on examples of bibliotherapy
practice (broadly defined as `using books for therapy'), Durrant developed
a model that addressed the challenges faced by asylum seekers and
refugees. He contested the psychoanalytic distinction between a healthy
process of `working through,' in which traumatic experiences are
consciously remembered and verbalised; and a pathological process of
`acting out,' in which experiences are unconsciously repeated through
actions. Durrant established the possibility of an unconscious process of
working through, in which traumatic experience is approached indirectly:
positive shifts in emotional life can unconsciously take place through the
aesthetic experience of imaginatively `acting out' other people's lives.
This distinguished Durrant's model of bibliotherapy, both from counselling
models which primarily emphasise the importance of telling one's own
story, and other forms of bibliotherapy such as Books on Prescription
which advocate the reading alone of books on directly relevant content
(e.g. self-help manuals).
Durrant's bibliotherapy stresses the therapeutic benefits of communal
reading and the importance of the form, rather than the content, of the
literary work. Literature produces a sense of corporeal community, firstly
because the readers are physically collected in a group, and secondly
because the texts are given a physical presence by being read aloud.
Durrant's model foregrounds this communal, performative dimension as
crucial to literature's therapeutic value, especially in overcoming the
isolation at the heart of many refugees' experience. As he argued in an
article on a pilot group studied over a two-year period , the
therapeutically crucial identification is not with what happens to
particular characters within a narrative but with the formal act of
narration itself. This study demonstrated that reading aloud enables
participants to learn how to narrate and give meaningful shape to their
own lives, with novels in the first person and lyric poetry having proved
particularly effective as therapeutic texts.
References to the research
All journal articles are peer-reviewed; essays appearing in books were
edited by leading trauma, psychoanalytic and postcolonial academics. Items
1-4 were included in RAE 2008. Based on the strength and relevance of this
research, Durrant has been invited to give presentations at 15 national
and international conferences and symposia. All references to works by
1] Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning: J. M.
Coetzee, Wilson Harris and Toni Morrison. Albany: State University
of New York Press, 2004. Over 1,000 copies sold. Strong sales of hardback
edition and positive reviews in international journals led to paperback
and electronic versions in 2006. Publication prompted invitation from the
Flemish Academic Centre for Advanced Studies (VLAC) in Brussels for
Durrant to join their Trauma Studies Research Centre on fully-funded
Fellowship in 2009. Available on request.
2] `The Invention of Mourning in Postapartheid Literature' Third
World Quarterly 26.3 (2005), Special Issue: Connecting Cultures,
ed Emma Bainbridge: 441-450.
3] `J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello and the Limits of the Sympathetic
Imagination.' In J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual.
Ed Jane Poyner. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006. 118-34. Available on
4] `Father, Can't You See I'm Burning?' Trauma, Ethics and the Real in J.
M. Coetzee's Age of Iron.' In Culture and the Unconscious.
Ed Michael Rustin, Caroline Bainbridge, Candida Yates and Susannah
Radstone. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007. 130-149. Available on request.
5] `Reading Asylum: Tweyambe! (Let's help each other!).' Moving
Worlds 11.2 (2012), Special Issue: Asylum Accounts: 44-57. Available
6] Editor, with Gert Beulens and Robert Eaglestone. The Future of
Trauma Theory: Contemporary Literary and Cultural Criticism. London
and New York: Routledge, 2013. Includes essay by Durrant, `Undoing
Sovereignty: Towards a Theory of Critical Mourning,' 91-109. Publication
emerged from VLAC Fellowship where Durrant worked with Beulens, Eaglestone
and other leading specialists in Trauma Studies. Available on request.
Details of the impact
Durrant's bibliotherapy was applied in collaboration with a
psychotherapist at Leeds refugee charity SOLACE. From January 2010 to
December 2011, one group of 6 refugees attended weekly 2-hour sessions.
Following the success of this pilot, four new groups of 4-8 refugees were
set up: with SOLACE (December 2012-present); Student Action for Refugees
(STAR, February 2012-present); Bradford Libraries (February
2013-present); and the Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Development Council
(ECSEDC, April 2013-present). Durrant acts as primary advisor for all
groups, which are led by graduate volunteers with literary and/or mental
health expertise. Feedback from participants and staff has evidenced the
positive impact on well-being of refugees (i), with the result that
Durrant's model has been adopted by a number of public and charitable
refugee organisations (ii).
i) The impact on the well-being of the refugees
Durrant's bibliotherapy allowed participating refugees and asylum seekers
to work through common feelings of depression and anxiety. The Clinical
Manager of SOLACE reported that the groups have been successful in
improving mental health `by addressing issues common to asylum seekers
such as difficulty with concentration, memory, anxiety, and confusion'. In
particular, Durrant's emphasis on the act of reading out loud literary
texts in a group environment had given participants `the opportunity to
reflect on and process their experiences, to put words to them and gain
authority over them' [E].
Bibliotherapy helped group members cope with the `psychological torture'
of asylum seeking. One participant noted the beneficial effects of
becoming `deeply absorbed in the literary works and intrigued by the
characters,' while another reflected that reading and discussing poems
`helps release us from our anger and abstract [sic] us from our grief.'
Reading about surviving racial discrimination offered one member `hope and
courage [to] rise again from a period of wastage, damage and hurt.' In the
most powerfully evidential case, a refugee who had been threatened with
repatriation was brought out of a panic attack simply by focusing on the
auditory rhythm of a poem being read aloud [A].
Collectively empathising with literary characters and themes together
allowed members to form a community that served as an antidote to the
isolating experience of seeking asylum in the UK. The shared act of
entering into fictional worlds prompted one refugee to describe her group
as a `new family' that `helps me have the sense of belonging.' The group
accordingly renamed itself `Tweyambe!,' a Lugandan expression meaning
`let's help each other!' Forming community not only restored refugees'
confidence, it inspired them to see how they might contribute to British
society. Having been granted asylum, 75% of the pilot group have now
entered training as foster parents, teaching assistants, or nurses. As one
refugee remarked, identification with a fictional character caused her to
`think of ways of helping the British community' [A].
In response to readings, members are also encouraged to produce their own
poetry in creative writing group sessions, and this has improved their
written and spoken communication skills. The STAR group facilitator
reported that `the continual dialogue, increasing our understanding of
each other's work, has led to [...] members seeing the reading group as a
complementary "intermediate group" to the general conversation classes.'
One member commented that `every single class has helped us understand
more about how to write and speak.' Participants recommended bibliotherapy
to other refugees who are struggling with English [B]. By improving
English literacy skills, participants were in an improved position to
complete job applications and seek employment. At the same time, these
poems have helped to raise public awareness of the ill treatment of asylum
seekers. Members have performed their poetry at public events such as
`Leeds: City of Sanctuary' (May 2011) and have published poems in journals
such as Moving Worlds, the webpages of refugee organisations (e.g.
and as part of a Refugee Week poster display.
ii) The imbedding of Durrant's model of bibliotherapy within partner
- SOLACE is convinced of the long-term benefits of bibliotherapy and has
now adopted it as the primary form of group therapy at their counselling
and advocacy centre [E]. This has in turn led refugees to view the
organisation not just in terms of access to services but as a base for
community. The Clinical Manager of SOLACE, who also acts as an advisor
to similar organisations, now recommends the model as a `sustainable...
effective [and] adaptable therapeutic practice [that] facilitates the
building of connections and community in ways that our other groups and
services do not.' Following a halving of SOLACE's funding in 2013, a
decision was made to maintain the bibliotherapy group by entering into
partnership with RETAS, a refugee education, training and advice centre
- STAR National Executive received a detailed report from Leeds STAR
leader recommending the formation of new groups across the UK [B].
- A consultant working for the ECSEDC in South Africa used Durrant's
bibliotherapy to recover the empathetic capacity of development
professionals dealing with a legacy of trauma. The group functions both
as `a site of empathetic identification between colleagues' and as `a
dialectical engagement with the socio-historical context that they must
address in the work that they do' [D].
- In May 2013 Durrant demonstrated his bibliotherapy at the National
School for Child and Adolescent Therapy to an audience of 50 people, of
whom the majority were practising clinicians. In feedback 86% found the
lecture interesting/inspiring for their work and 36% stated that it
would influence their clinical/professional practice. The event
coordinator observed that, while bibliotherapy was new to most
attendees, the presentation convinced them of it as an effective form of
- After witnessing the success of the SOLACE group, the Streatham
Drop-In Centre for Asylum Seekers and Refugees applied for funding to
start a group [H].
- A presentation by Durrant as part of Refugee Week 2013 led to the
Leeds City of Sanctuary Movement to consider bibliotherapy to help
schools attain the `School of Sanctuary Award' (award for promoting
positive attitudes towards people seeking sanctuary) [I].
Sources to corroborate the impact
*Copies of all transcripts, reports and materials available on request
A] Annual questionnaires completed by refugees in the SOLACE and STAR
groups, July 2011, 2012 and 2013.
B] Report on Student Action for Refugees group, submitted to the National
Executive, July 2013.
C] Report from Bradford Libraries, July 2013.
D] Report from Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Development Council
Consultant, July 2013.
E] Transcript of interviews with Clinical Manager of SOLACE, November
2012 and July 2013.
F] Feedback questionnaires from NSCAP lecture audience members, March
G] Transcript of interview with lecture respondent and Programme Manager,
Foundation Course in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy and Inter-Cultural
Psychodynamic Therapy, NSCAP, July 2013.
H] Report from Chair of the Streatham Drop-In Centre for Asylum Seekers
and Refugees, July 2013.
I] Report from Leeds Schools of Sanctuary Coordinator, July 2013.