Can poetry help our mental health?
While I’m convinced of this, so much so that I’ve written a new book on the links between verse and our emotional wellbeing, I wanted to know if there was any research which attests to poetry’s power to heal our minds.
I had my own personal reasons to see whether there was any scientific data on the subject, because it’s not an exaggeration to say that poetry saved my life.
In my thirties, I fell so ill with severe depression that I went to a psychiatric hospital. I wasn’t well enough to read a chapter, let alone concentrate on a whole book. Instead, I found comfort in soothing poetic one-liners, ones that told a more positive story and reminded me that I was not alone. My favourite line, which I found at the height of my illness when I was suicidal, was from the Bible. It’s an extract from Corinthians: “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
My experiences and poetry’s role in my recovery led to my 2014 memoir, Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me: My Journey Through Depression. Ever since I’ve been banging on about the healing power of poetry and running ‘Healing Words’ workshops in prisons and for mental health charities.
When I started sharing poems, I found that many other people were interested in finding words for difficult times. This came naturally to me. I was able to share the poems which had got me through my depression.
The religious poet George Herbert’s Love (III) was a particular favourite. The poem includes a dialogue between the narrator, who feels unworthy — “guilty of dust and sin”: a phrase I often come back to as a description of depression — and Love, a gentle, non-judgmental voice in the conversation.
By the final verse, the narrator finally lets himself be loved for who he is. And that message helped me move past my own feelings of worthlessness.
Since first meeting Herbert, my poetic tastes have changed. The big shift happened when my mother died nearly four years ago. She had first introduced me to poetry and had a head full of poems she could recite from memory. She wasn’t only drawn to consoling poems, but poems of joy and hope too.
After she died, I started to feel more drawn to poems which let you experience joyous feelings. My Mum’s death taught me that life is too short not to. Poetry gives us permission to feel deeply, whatever mood we might be in. Neurologists say that poetry speaks to a primitive part of our brain, perhaps a part that was more active when poems were passed down orally before writing was invented.
The result has been my second book about poetry. It’s called You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs. In it, I explain and share the poems which have helped me (and those in my workshops) to understand and allow our feelings, whether despairing or joyful and to feel we have a poem to keep us company.
I’ve organised my selections according to the season in which they more or less ‘belong’: we all have seasons of our minds, from the wintry and dark, to the more spring-like and hopeful.
I remember one woman starting to cry as she read Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Love after Love’ during a workshop held at my local hospital in West London. Fighting through tears, she eventually said, “I feel understood”. Everyone in the room knew just what she meant.
She had, in Walcott’s phrase, struggled to “love again the stranger who was yourself”. The poet’s invitation to “Sit. Feast on your life” was the nudge she needed, in language which spoke to her, to imagine loving herself in a way she had always found hard.
Poetry had worked its magic, unlocking a feeling of inner connection, and in turn a connection to all of us sitting in the workshop. To paraphrase the poet Paul Celan, a poem is like a handshake: it creates bonds between us. Or as Scott Fitzgerald wrote of literature: “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
Given this enthusiasm, I was naturally keen to review the literature on the power of poetry. It shows that the therapeutic impact of poetry is an unfolding field of interest in the clinical world. New studies are starting to emerge about how poetry can affect us in three main ways: when we read (or listen to) poetry; when we write poetry; and when poetry is used in the training of healthcare professionals. A fourth, and final area of interest for me personally, is the effect of sharing poetry with others.
Stay tuned for my next article, where you can read about my findings following my search for literature and scientific evidence for the power of poetry in mental health.
Rachel Kelly’s new book You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs is published by Yellow Kite.