Writing and Mental Health: The Power of Words - Catherine Miller / by Richard Bentley

Catherine Miller teaches English in South East London and writes YA under the name Catherine Queen

We all know the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. It’s true, right? Nibs slashing swathes across pages, declaring wars and ending lives - words have power. But what if the battle is a personal one? 

Writing and mental health have long been linked, at least anecdotally. Dr. Nancy Andreasen noted in 1987 that writers in her study were more likely to develop mental illness, especially bipolar disorder. From Plath to Hemingway, the literary firmament is studded with examples of fine writers who struggled with mental health issues. There are even those who claim (controversially) a genetic link between creativity and mental disorders. 

This seeming link begs the question: is writing what we turn to when we have no other outlet? The author Matt Haig, whose recent book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ explores his journey through depression, writes, ‘through reading and writing...I found a kind of salvation from the dark’. He is not the only person to have found it a helpful process. Writing is most often a solitary activity that encourages us to look inwards and draw on emotions that might be buried deep. Whilst that could be seen as a temptation to dark thoughts, it can often become a cathartic process.

When it becomes too difficult to talk about something, the written word can be a healing tool. This doesn’t necessarily mean writing for an audience. French author André Gide wrote, ‘A diary is useful during conscious, intentional, and painful spiritual evolutions. Then you want to know where you stand’. Any kind of writing, but especially the intimate, personal revelations possible in a private diary, can help you reform your sense of self when you might otherwise feel lost. It’s a chance to mull things over, a chance to record whims and thoughts and revisit them later. 

But writing can also be open and public, and although that’s a scary option, frank writing can help others come to terms with their own struggles, too. Perhaps that’s why there’s been a movement towards the destigmatisation of mental health in recent years - with the relative freedom the web provides, it’s never been easier to publish our thoughts. Time to Change is just one of the organisations aiming to demystify mental health issues, including a blog where people are encouraged to post their stories. 

Writing can also just be fun. I’d count my own in that category, given that I write ridiculous adventure stories full of madcap dashes across London and doomed romances with outlaws for young adults. It’s a space to experiment, a space to play. It’s also a way to put myself in someone else’s shoes, exploring their feelings and, by extension, my own. A diary, a poem, a blog post or a novel: it doesn’t matter what type of writing you pursue. The act of finding the words within and arranging them on the page to make meaning - that’s power. 

Try it and take it for yourself.

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