Writing can be therapeutic for many reasons. Read on to learn the unique ways that poetry can help your mental health.
A few years ago, after carefully planning how I would take my own life, I voluntarily checked myself into a psychiatric hospital. To my pleasant surprise, the few days I spent there were nothing like what was shown in movies — no Nurse Ratchet roamed the halls.
During the day, we attended various therapy sessions, including group therapy, art therapy, and music therapy. After the first day, I began to think of my experience as a “therapy camp.”
As part of our therapy, we were encouraged to write. While I journaled my thoughts and feelings, many patients wrote poetry. As the designated writer of the group, they brought me their poems and asked for feedback. I tried my best to give notes, but since I wasn’t a poet and knew only the basics, my feedback was rudimentary at best.
What intrigued me was how much poetry my fellow patients wrote.
When I asked, “Why poetry?” they explained that poetry allowed them to express their thoughts in a way that prose couldn’t. Poetry didn’t have to make logical sense, so it was an easier way to let out their emotions.
My companions were onto something.
According to an article written by Dr. Richard Sima, a communication specialist and neuroscientist, “Poetry can provide comfort and boost mood during periods of stress, trauma, and grief. Its powerful combination of words, metaphor, and meter help us better express ourselves and make sense of the world and our place in it.”
Lucy English, a lecturer at Bath Spa University, noted in an article for The Guardian that several students enrolled in the school’s performance poetry module took it to “relieve stress, boost confidence, or deal with a variety of mental health problems.”
There isn’t an exact scientific explanation as to why those living with depression are drawn to poetry. However, what is clear is that poetry does seem to help. I set out to find out why — and how — writing poetry could help me with my own depression.
According to Marisha Mathis, a licensed clinical social worker, poetry therapy is when “poetry is read, shared, or written to help clients better identify, understand, and express their emotions.”
While the idea of poetry therapy is fairly new, poetry being used for therapy is not. Kamilah Stevenson, a health coach, counselor, and pastor, explained that “the historical intersection of poetry and mental health runs deep.”
For example, Walt Whitman, one of America’s preeminent poets, served as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War and often used poetry as a way to comfort wounded soldiers.
But while poetry therapy can be helpful, like any other form of therapy it should be handled delicately.
Majda Gama, an Arab-American poet, noted that “when you’re depressed and newly writing, there’s an incongruent rush to get writing into the world either at open mics or by submitting to challenging literary journals. I saw this as a poetry editor. There’s nothing worse than having to send poetry rejections, but they’re especially hard when as a depressive myself, you send them to someone who used the poem as a therapeutic release.”
Instead, Gama advocates that “poetry therapy should be a safe and affirming artistic experience.” So, if you do start writing poetry (or currently are), don’t focus necessarily on getting it published — write it for you.
Subconsciously, our thoughts don’t tend to exist in coherent sentences.
Fractured, fragmented nature of poetry can often mirror the way our minds work, particularly during periods of emotional distress.
Kamilah Stevenson, health coach, counselor, and Pastor
Essentially, poetry mimics what our subconscious looks like when we’re in a depressive episode. Therefore, Stevenson noted, “Poetry’s allowance for nonlinear narrative and disjointed imagery can often provide a more accurate representation of these fragmented mental states.”
Gama agreed with this analysis. She herself wrote through a shift in mood by breaking the poetic line into very short and raw lines. By doing so, she used “creative lyricism to face something dark and build a light in the midst of it.”
Lucas Cardona, an MFA candidate in poetry in creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, reflected on how friends, who are not traditional poets, send him “lyrical fragments, poems-in-progress, stream-of-consciousness jottings they wrote on their phones on their commute home from work or at a park or something.”
Tony Hoagland, an award-winning poet who taught at the University of Houston, also considered this idea in his essay “Fragment, Juxtaposition, And Completeness: Some Notes and Preferences.”
He writes that in poetry, “Fracture is to evoke a speaker’s heightened psychological state — distress, or in some cases, rapture … fragment imitates the accelerated or disrupted stream of consciousness of fear, excitement, or illumination, a state of mind which … makes grammatical convention impossible.”
Considering how many of my fellow patients felt, I realized why poetry made so much sense to them. The fragmented nature of poetry mirrored their thoughts at the time, which is why it was easier for them to write.
As a prose writer, I have trouble writing in fragments. However, when I’m in a deep, depressive episode, my thoughts are not comprehensible. Writing out my thoughts in a more fragmented form has helped me later make sense of them and relieve them in the moment.
Throughout history, several poets have struggled with depression, and their poetry often reflects that. For those of us living with depression, reading and listening to these poets can be helpful.
As Stevenson pointed out, poetry has “served as a source of comfort, a therapeutic tool, and a means of grappling with depression to express and explore their emotions.”
Since poetry is a universal language that resonates across several cultures, there are several poets whose work may provide comfort and perspective.
Stevenson recommended some of the more well-known poets, including Langston Hughes (a personal favorite), Gwendolyn Brooks, Pablo Neruda, and Rumi.
Gama turns to contemporary Arab-American poets, who she describes as writing some of the most validating poems right now. A few of these poets include Zeina Hashem Beck, Jessica Abughattas, Zeina Alsous, Jess Rizkallah, and Hayan Charara.
While listening to and reading these poems can be helpful, there may be times when you find it too difficult to concentrate on anything.
At times like this, Cardona has a few poems memorized that he recites to himself as a grounding technique, which is a soothing technique for when you’re experiencing overwhelming feelings or intense anxiety.
Grounding helps keep you in the present, which is what makes it so effective. When needing to ground himself, Cardona will often recite the following poems to himself:
“Spring” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
“White White Collars” by Denis Johnson
“Not Waving but Drowning” by Stevie Smith
The “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech from “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare
“What I Didn’t Know Before” by Ada Limon
“My Father’s Hands” by Selima Hill
“White Apples” by Donald Hall
Since poetry is so personal, the medium helps each of us in different ways.
Gama “chose poetry because when you’re in a depressive phase there’s enormous satisfaction in filling just one page with your writing! It’s an achievable goal that I can remind myself of when I’m convinced that I’m terrible at writing and then fear the blank page.”
Depression can make it extremely difficult to complete tasks, even ones as simple as getting out of bed. Having small, achievable goals like writing one page is gratifying and can inspire us to move on to another step.
Stevenson has encouraged her clients to “communicate their thoughts and emotions as freely and openly as possible,” which might include “metaphors or analogies to describe their feelings.”
For me, writing — or explaining — my depression in terms of metaphors has been extremely helpful.
I have often equated my depression to being in a deep, dark forest where there’s no light and I can’t escape. While this image may be cliche, it’s helped others who haven’t experienced depression understand what it’s like and how I feel in the moment.
I still do not consider myself to be a poet, but I have found the medium to be healing.
Not having the pressure to tell a complete, cohesive story the way I have to with prose has been a welcome change.
Poetry has allowed me to better articulate the uneven nature of depression, and I encourage you to try it too.
Medically reviewed on July 18, 2023
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