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Writing as Therapy

By Stephen James Wilkinson


“There has never been great talent without some touch of madness.” SENECA

Although it has a long tradition behind it, writing as a form of self-help therapy is, today, still not recognised by many within the mental health profession. Practitioners might argue that even our most celebrated “mad-poets”- Cowper, Hopkins, Clare, Byron, Plath- despite the liberating aims of their art, led tormented lives. It is, however, becoming more and more and accepted that organising the chaos of one's thoughts and experiences in the process of writing them down, can lead to a marked improvement in one's mental health: it teaches discipline and focus. For the man, or woman, afflicted with schizophrenia or depression, fictionalising his or her experiences in prose and verse can, as well as satisfying the individual's creative need to tell a story (and tell it well), also bring them a deeper understanding of their own disordered personality. Writing can therefore be empowering.

If we are to avoid being dismissed or, worse, having our literature pathologised by clinicians, we must not simply write autobiographically. If, in the narration (in prose and verse) of one's mental distress, one describes only brute, raw experiences, what will be produced will be not art but life story. This has its place to be sure, but it should never be intrusive, for this would weaken one's claim to pure artistry.

Dryden may have been expressing an idea with a long history when he wrote the lines: “Great wits to madness are sure near allied/And thin partitions do their bounds divide”, but it is not one to which I subscribe. Lunacy inhibits coherent creativity: no truly mad artist has ever produced works of genius. The ingravescent mind can speak only of chaos, in a language that is strange, garbled and alien. This is why writing in a hospital environment can be so important, for medication, therapy, and a sympathetic psychiatrist, can stabilise the sufferer's mental condition, enabling him or her to write intelligibly about experiences that can be very personal and often bizarre. Thus from madness a fortunate few can recover (the notion that “breakdown can also mean breakthrough”) and this journey back from darkness into light, from disintegration to reintegration, can be recorded, to the delight of writer and reader alike.

Fictional prose, and poetry, can be for the troubled writer quite cathartic. Although the themes favoured by the self-referential and mentally ill author will often be stark, painful and frightening, their writing can nevertheless be life-affirming and profoundly insightful. The great alleviation, and expression, of one's tormented inner landscapes through writing is justification enough for its being adopted in therapeutic environments. The more enlightened of these are beginning to recognise the value of service users exploring their mental distress in writing, and now encourage such activities through both creative writing course and individual patient counselling.

This should prove a positive first step to the treatment of the mentally ill in the 21st century.