THE power of reading and stories will be harnessed by a new wellbeing project which was initiated and part-funded by bestselling author Ann Cleeves.

Public health, council, academic and voluntary organisations have teamed up to launch the pilot scheme to see how reading can improve the health of people across the region – from those with chronic pain, anxiety or depression to the socially isolated.

Ms Cleeves initiated the project to mark the 21st anniversary of her fictional detective Vera Stanhope, and in recognition of the solace she’s found in stories throughout her life.

The character of the dishevelled, grumpy and compassionate DCI Stanhope was conceived whilst Ms Cleeves spent many hours walking in Northumberland with her late husband, Tim, after he suffered a severe psychotic episode, following a period of stress at work.

Her husband was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar and got the medical help he needed to get better, but for Ms Cleeves therapy came from escaping into reading and writing fiction.

She said: “Over the years, I’ve seen how understanding and confidence grows when people are encouraged to explore their experiences through story. It gives a fresh perspective. A distance. Anger and resentment can dissipate. And because we’re sharing a bit of ourselves when we’re talking about books, friendships develop.

“It has been more than 21 years since my detective character Vera Stanhope first appeared in the Crow Trap.

"Vera has been good to me, but I wouldn’t have had the tools to write Vera if libraries hadn’t allowed me to read widely.

"So I decided to mark Vera’s 21st anniversary by giving a birthday present to the region that created her – by suggesting and sponsoring this Reading for Wellbeing project."

She mooted the project at a regional public health conference last March and pledged to sponsor two workers if delegates took up her challenge.

They did, and nine community reading workers are now employed to work in six local authority areas – County Durham, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside and South Tees, covering Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland.

They will offer a holistic and personalised approach to empower and motivate individuals or families to take proactive steps to improve their health and wellbeing. This could include spaces and places for reading, emotional support, and other tools to help mental and physical wellbeing.

The six local authorities involved provided funding and will deliver the initiative to suit their own local needs, which in County Durham will focus on supporting socially isolated people in Tow Law and Stanley.

Ms Cleeves paid for training and further money and support comes from partners including Public Health England (North East) and Voluntary Organisations’ Network North East (VONNE).

“I am absolutely thrilled that this project is now officially up and running across the North East and can’t wait to see how much difference it makes," she said.

The work will be evaluated by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria (ARC) – so that the impact of the project on the health and wellbeing of those involved, can be measured.

Leaders hope it will not only improve the lives of those who participate and go on to become a model that will be extended in the region in the future and to other parts of the country.

Newcastle GP Guy Pilkington, who leads the project's steering group, believes literature and reading-based projects could change lives, particularly in areas of deprivation where "the things that make a difference to people's lives go way beyond their conversations with health professionals and the tablets they take".

Jane Hartley, health and wellbeing associate at VONNE who leads the project, said only 10 pre cent of a person's health and wellbeing is determined by their access to medical provision with 90 per cent dependant on issues like lifestyle and housing.

She said: “We are thrilled to be involved in supporting this project regionally and ensuring links with local social prescribing networks and voluntary and community sector partners.

"It is great that Ann has led the way in funding this grass roots community based approach to helping people experience the positive influence of books and reading on their wellbeing.”

Professor Eileen Kaner, Director of the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria (NENC) said: “This is a fantastic project for our region and we’re hugely grateful to Ann Cleeves for setting the ball rolling, and for her enormous enthusiasm and support.

“The North East has high social and health inequalities, and some of the highest rates of ill health and early death in the country. Evidence is building around the therapeutic value of reading for pleasure, and a growing number of studies have found positive links between reading and health – including helping adults to manage chronic disease, long-term pain, addiction and mental health problems.

“Our evaluation of this project will assess its impact on the health and wellbeing of those taking part. We will be asking not only ‘has this worked?’ but also ‘what has worked, why, and under what circumstances?’ This will help us to pinpoint the factors that influence whether it is a success or not, and these findings will be used to guide any future expansion of the scheme.”


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