Poetry & Wellbeing

In a system that gives a central place to scientific, technical and medical approaches to mental health what difference can poetry make to someone experiencing mental health problems or madness?  Are we offering any more in our mental health services to people today than we were 50 or 60 years ago when ‘mad’ people were often institutionalised for life?  And what can a poet learn from, or give to, someone who becomes a service-user of community mental health services or an in-patient?

11 years ago I found myself staying on a ward during a particularly horrible and frightening episode of recurring depression.

For someone who has never experienced depression – or lived with someone going through it – it can be a baffling and bewildering experience.  How much more mysterious and perplexing is the experience of those who hear voices or experience hallucinations, those who cannot recognise themselves or refuse to eat to the point of starvation? As a poet working in the NHS alongside distressed, medicated, contained and mad people I see myself as one of them rather than on the staff side of the business.  Does this make me more able to bring something meaningful – or am I less equipped to understand what Government policy means when it declares there to be ‘No Health Without Mental Health’?

“On Poetry & Madness”  aims to explore and consider these questions with reference to my own work as a poet, the poetry of others and current policy and practice in the arts in mental health.

Much Madness is divinest Sense
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –
Emily Dickinson

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