Many of us have taken up a pen at one time or other to let rip
about what is troubling us and will have felt better as a result.
But what about those who are suffering from more deep-rooted mental
It’s not new to say that expressing yourself is good for you. This
is, after all, the foundation stone of all psychotherapy, at least
since Freud. But, to a certain extent, writing is playing catch-up
to talking. And research results are beginning to bolster what many
writers and some health practitioners have instinctively felt must
be right – that writing has a therapeutic worth.
In 2002, Robin Philipp, a consultant in occupational and public
health at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, reported that three-quarters
of patients attending a programme of poetry workshops found them
helpful and cathartic. And 7 per cent were able to come off
antidepressants all together.
Another investigation detailed in the Journal of the American
Medical Association in April 1999 showed how a writing programme
brought about a measurable improvement in the health of people with
asthma and arthritis sufferers.
It’s not just any kind of writing, however, that appears to help
the most. In the above case there was a control group asked to
write only about their plans for the day, while another group
recorded their innermost feelings. It was the latter who were seen
to benefit most.
It is not particularly clear what makes writing good for the
health. Gillie Bolton, poet, researcher and trainer in therapeutic
writing, suggests that writing has a quite different power from
talking or thinking. For starters it is tangible. “It is seen, it
can be heard, it can be touched on the page – framed, filed with
care, screwed up in a ball, or burned,” she says.1
At the beginning of each session of the group I run, we do three
minutes of free writing. It gives participants an opportunity to
put down any thoughts that might get in the way of any creative
processes. Sometimes they will want to share what they have done,
at other times they will screw up the paper and throw it away,
symbolically getting rid of any negativity they brought into the
session with them.
Writing can also form a permanent record, something to look back on
to recognise that changes have been made. Philipp, who writes
poetry himself, says, “In the same way we build up a photo album,
we can build up a poetry album with snapshots of our
Some psychologists believe that the rhythms of poetry stimulate the
part of the brain which governs emotion. Being forced to put these
emotions down on paper brings about a kind of order and
Founder of Survivors’ Poetry, Hilary Porter, says: “The rules of
poetry – being original, not using clich’s, not spelling something
out but suggesting it – are somehow helpful. You can hide a lot of
pain behind a metaphor.”
Another aspect which gives writing its power is that the writers
themselves are going to be the first audience for any piece and it
need go no further. The feelings are out but no one need hear them
except, as Bolton puts it, “the quiet accepting page”.
On the other hand, for some people the need to communicate to
others is important. This is especially the case for those who have
a mental illness and feel hemmed in by stigma and prejudice.
Furthermore, given the climate of misunderstanding that surrounds
mental health, it is as important for others – sufferers and
non-sufferers alike – to hear what it feels like to have depression
To move from therapeutic to truly publishable writing, however, can
be a big step. The art of adapting for a market, editing and
re-working is a difficult one to learn especially when it feels
like the words have been squeezed from your soul. It can be a
valuable experience. Taking another person’s point of view, for
instance, can be a way of getting another perspective on what is
going on in your life.
Therapeutic writing is not something to be taken lightly. It can
and does unleash emotions, memories and reactions which, at times,
can seem unbearable. It is vital that the group and facilitator be
prepared for this and know where they can go for support. Nor
should it be used as an alternative for more conventional
“Writing is a form of therapy,” mused author Graham Greene.
“Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or
paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic
fear inherent in the human situation.”
– For more information visit website: www.groups.msn.com/survivorspoetry
Writing Cures. An
Introductory Handbook of Writing in Counselling and
Psychotherapy, edited by Gillie Bolton, Stephanie Howlett,
Colin Lago and Jeannie K Wright will be published by
Brunner-Routledge next month.