Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Child Development

The Mental Health Benefits of Literacy

Incorporating literacy into mental health practices.

Literacy and health are closely intertwined. Research has proven that stories are a powerful mechanism for building resilience and helping young people develop empathy, foster emotional intelligence, and find strength. While this correlation has always been important, there is renewed urgency in building resilience as the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the state of youth mental health.

In my decades of work as a pediatrician and professor in the field, it has been my life’s mission to improve the lives of children and families through research, service, and training. In the past few years since the pandemic, I’ve seen firsthand the grief, uncertainty, and fear that students and their families have been facing. At the same time, I’ve also seen the impact books can have on these families.

Our new research confirms what my colleagues in the healthcare and education sectors know all too well—families are worried about the impact of the pandemic on their children’s mental health. Data from the report takes a closer look at kids' emotional experiences, parents’ concerns about their children’s mental health, and the intersection of mental health and literacy.

Most worryingly, and yet not surprisingly, half of parents of 6- to 17-year-olds (51 percent) report their child’s mental health was negatively affected by their pandemic experiences. When asked to describe the changes that concerned them, parents mentioned social isolation and loneliness, with one parent of a 15-year-old boy sharing that their son has been struggling with social anxiety since the pandemic. Others mentioned their child being shy or withdrawn, more anxious or worried, and sad or depressed.

These signals align with a recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy. The new Surgeon General Advisory identifies loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection as a public health crisis. “Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connections the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected.”

Building social connections is one of the most important predictors of resilience, and literacy can provide a powerful source of those connections. We know that literacy increases how students and families engage. Bringing children and families together around shared stories and narrative has a lifetime benefit as narrative brings people together and builds community.

Literacy can change health and is a key mediator between socioeconomic inequality and health disparities. To that end, our research shows a correlation between reading frequency and teens’ emotional experiences. Children who are frequent readers fared better in terms of their self-reported mental health: infrequent readers were more likely to say that their emotional or mental health is worse than before the pandemic (32 percent vs. 25 percent of frequent readers). Frequent readers were also more likely than infrequent readers to report recently feeling proud (62 percent vs. 32 percent) and excited (59 percent vs. 46 percent). Infrequent readers on the other hand were more likely than more frequent readers to say they have recently felt lonely (30 percent vs. 19 percent), sad or depressed (37 percent vs. 25 percent), and nervous or anxious (50 percent vs. 39 percent).

This data speaks for itself, but even more compelling are the stories that emerge from it. In discussing the ways that literacy can help families cope with the toll of the pandemic on children’s mental health, one mom of a 9-year-old described how a book, recommended by a therapist, has supported her daughter with intrusive thoughts. Since incorporating literacy into their mental health practices, the family has seen how reading has helped with their child's mindfulness, controlling of intrusive thoughts, and reactions to these thoughts. In another similar conversation, an 11-year-old girl shared, “I'm reading this book now about anxiety and things to help you cope with it. I'm learning a lot from that book.”

Reading increases a child’s capacity for critical thinking, develops empathy skills, gives them the support they need during challenging times, and builds much needed resilience promoting skills which can help protect against various mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. To put it clearly, literacy is not just an educational intervention but is an investment in a child’s health for the long-haul. In our medical practice, we must educate families and caregivers about the impact of early literacy, ensure that the communities we serve prioritize reading, and advocate for healthcare providers to receive adequate training and resources around child-literacy assessment, promotion and intervention throughout childhood. Once we do this, we will see the longstanding benefits in children for generations to come.


Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report: 8th Edition

More from Linda C. Mayes M.D.
More from Psychology Today