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Poetry and mental health

Updated: May 28

May is Mental Health Month, which has prompted me to reflect on the connection between poetry and mental health, both personally and culturally. Some of my favourite poets are famous for their mental health struggles: Sylvia Plath, Paul Celan, John Berryman, to name a few. Psychologist James Kaufman even coined the term ‘the Sylvia Plath effect’ to describe the phenomenon whereby some research has found that poets are more likely to display signs of a mental illness than other creative writers. This poses the question: are people drawn to poetry as a means to cope with distress?

This notion is backed up by research by Nottingham Trent University, which found that reading, creating, and sharing poetry can help people to cope with feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. I found several scientific studies supporting this idea and it rings true for me. I started experimenting with poetry in my early teens. When I felt the usual adolescent overwhelming emotions, I found it helped to write about it, and scribbled notebooks full of poems and lyrics. After writing I felt like I could breathe again: giving emotions a form of expression is freeing, in and of itself.

Many years later I still reach for my journal or notebook to help me to express

what I am feeling. Writing has helped me to process my feelings and come to a place of greater acceptance, rather than chasing after what I would like life to be. It is an ongoing process but one that poetry makes easier.

Both reading and writing poetry has been a lifeline in times of turmoil. I have felt relief that someone else has felt similarly. So, this Mental Health Month I would like to celebrate the reading, writing, and sharing of poetry as a balm to soothe us in inevitable times of distress that are part of living.


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