Poetry and Mental Health

How Reading Poetry Can Help Your Mental Health

Mental health can be defined as, ‘a state of well being; a spectrum to achieve psychological and emotional wellness, where an individual can realize their true potential and function effectively.’ Therefore, mental health affects us all; and all kinds of things can affect our mental health, which can result in mental illness. Mastering your own mental health has become a popular quest and there is no shortage of self help literature available in books and online. But what about literature for mental health? Such literature is equally readily available, in the form of fiction and poetry.

This article will explore the therapeutic value of poetry and consider how reading poetry can support our well being.

Self help books, mindfulness and meditation are a common port of call to improve mental health in suffering. While poetry may not be an obvious choice to help remedy undesirable thoughts and feelings, poetry has a proven record for improving and supporting mental health and wellbeing, with little risk of side effects and at no cost to the taxpayer.

Poetry speaks from history and across cultures, from the writer to the reader; therefore, instantly addressing a common mental health factor; loneliness. The reader is not alone when reading, the writer wrote for the reader. Furthermore, the reader may recognize their own feelings in a poem, which can help to alleviate feelings of hopelessness and evoke positive emotions, understanding, compassion and empathy. Indeed, it is claimed that Wordsworth’s poetry not only cured others of depression but also reduced the severity of future episodes of the condition.

Reading poetry was central to the treatment in hospitals of traumatized soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War I, who were suffering with Shellshock, what we now know as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Soldiers were given poems to help soothe their minds, to help them make sense of their experiences and articulate their feelings. Reading poetry written by other soldiers of these shared experiences was instrumental in the healing of a generation. Some of the greatest poets of all time were borne out of the Great War; John McCrae, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon to name but a few.

In 19th Century Britain, publishers produced poetic anthologies and day books specifically marketed to help Victorians steady their pace in an increasingly busy world. Poetry can bring calm to a chaotic world. Writers take such care with their words that it forces you to stop and focus, to slow down and be in the moment, to take notice of their words, stepping aside from other influences in your immediate environment which has huge positive effects on healing.

Poetry is a group of words about something meaningful, using carefully chosen words to describe feelings about things, or as Wordsworth describes, poetry is “an overflow of powerful feelings,” thus creating a sense of connection, an opportunity to alleviate some of those emotions, and an opportunity to help you find words that you can’t find yourself. All of which provide strong and positive therapeutic value in supporting your mental health and well being.

Next time you feel your mental is being affected by a situation, take some time out with poetry of the theme of its cause. Much is available online or in libraries. Why not consider assembling a collection of poems for your own reference?

If you experience intense and prolonged suffering, see your GP or physician for support.

By Anna Fletcher, UK
About the author: Anna Fletcher
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