Mental Health Matters: Nic Goddard

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One in four of us will be affected by mental health issues at some point in our lives. Depression and anxiety are often part of mental illness along with a sense of desperation or hopelessness. But we are not alone.

Support is available from many sources in the form of medication and a whole array of therapies. Art, music, dance, theatre and writing are all excellent outlets for improving our state of mind along with producing creative output.

A recent study by award-winning journalist, novelist, teacher and trainer Catherine Devaney and psychologist Patrick Lawson has resulted in the development of a Creative Writing for Wellbeing course.

Following remarkable results from the pilot study, the course has been rolled out more widely and I attended one of the courses run over four weekly 90-minute sessions online.

Dr Devaney, who has a long and successful career, returned to university to study psychology and drew on her own experience in fiction writing when developing the programme.

A lived experience of a situation or a close understanding of it from interviewing someone helped her to create characters, situations and believable plot lines.

She told me: ‘A personal bereavement enabled me to write in the third person using my own experience. I also realised the therapeutic benefit of doing so. The primary reason for the study was therapy, not creative writing.’

Dr Lawson continued: ‘Expressive writing is often used in CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) to encourage people to describe their thoughts and feelings but this study turns that on its head.

‘Instead of writing about yourself you are writing about someone else. This exchange of person allows you to deal creatively with those emotions.’

Dr Devaney explained: ‘That’s the alchemy! You are no longer writing about you and you can suddenly own the narrative and change the story, redrafting it until you are happy with it.’

Exploring some of the circumstances around feelings, the situations and relationships and then having the freedom to change those things gives a sense of power and control.

Dr Devaney elaborate: ‘A lot of mental health issues are to do with feeling alone or that your problems are only yours. Being heard and understood is very important and with writing the page is always listening.’

There is real science behind this but does it actually work? The participants of the study certainly thought so – 100 per cent of the people who joined completed the study, with all of them reporting it as interesting and above all else, helpful.

Subsequently, the course has been tweaked and rolled out several times to people working in healthcare, to writers and journalists, and it was announced last week that Dr Devaney will be the writer-in-residence at a secondary school running a creative writing for wellbeing course for pupils.

The course I attended covered all aspects of creative writing, with homework tasks assigned for those attendees who wanted to participate in the wellbeing aspect of the sessions.

Encouraged to write for at least 20 minutes we were given prompts each week to continue our story. We always wrote in the third person and, although there was a heavy amount of autobiographical content, that removal of ‘I’ and ‘me’ from the story was a powerful tool for creating objectivity and distance. By the end of the tasks we were writing about triumphing over the adversity of the situation and moving on.

As you are reading my words in print, it will come as no surprise that I am a strong believer in writing being a brilliant way to empty your head of thoughts and get them onto a page instead.

But as anyone who has ever penned a lovelorn poem, scribbled in a teenage diary or written an angst filled letter they never intended to send will know, there is a lot of therapy in letting your words flow.

This fascinating take on creative writing as a well being tool with a twist is definitely one I will be exploring further and can recommend as a great self help tool too.