Surviving or Thriving is a Mental Health Awareness Week piece by Durre Shahwar as part of Wales Arts Review’s new series, Artists in Residence. Here she reflects on the use of writing and bibliotherapy as a coping mechanism when dealing with mental health. Throughout 2017 artists, including Durre Shahwar will take a leading creative role in what Wales Arts Review publishes, centring their skills on a challenging project over the course of a month. We were inundated with applications, receiving hundreds of emails about the positions, and it was no easy task whittling down all that talent to this final eleven. Our team of six editors debated long into the night, and in the end, we decided on a collection of people who we most want to work with, and whose work excites us. We think you will be excited by them too.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “more than 300 million people are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015” [i]. A report by WHO also found that mental health will likely be the leading cause of physical diseases by 2030, yet despite this, the number of resources going into researching mental health is less than 6%[ii]. In fact, as we are all aware, mental health funding has been cut in many areas of the UK, despite the government’s pledge to increase it. Can the government make surviving easy enough for people to thrive?
This year’s theme of Mental Health Awareness Week, ‘Surviving or Thriving?’ seeks to uncover “why too few of us are thriving with good mental health”[iii]. This angle is interesting as it makes us ask better questions to further our understanding of mental health and how we can thrive in spite of it. What is the difference between surviving and thriving and why do so many of us feel as though we are simply doing the latter, despite progression and better awareness of our physical health and lifestyles? It frames the discussion by asking whether this is due to rising expectations of everyday living. As a society, our awareness of mental health is also rising, yet approaches to mental health and individuals still need to improve by taking into account social backgrounds, race, religion, class, gender and so on.
The most obvious ways to rationalise mental health is through the big events – death, divorce, trauma of some sort. Pinning down a solid cause and effect can arguably provide better ways of dealing with mental health, not just for the individual but also for those in contact with the individual in terms of support. But what about those for whom there is no specific cause? When there is no obvious reason for it besides the everyday demands of living? In this context, thriving arguably conjures up a survival of the fittest scenario.
Whatever the reason, the pertinent question to ask is how we can continue to live out our lives in spite of mental health. A friend of mine recently gave a very straightforward answer to an offhand question by me by stating that, we don’t really ‘get over’ depression but simply learn to live with it. Arguably, this approach to mental health seems more practical as it focuses less on waiting on a time in the future when we will no longer have bad mental health preventing us from living our lives. It is instead a ‘mindful’ approach, more focused on the present and taking it day by day. However, every individual is different (to state the obvious), even if the methods and tools used to manage our mental health may often be similar.
For me, one of these tools is bibliotherapy. My passion for literature and reading since the age of 5, now turned into a career choice, has also in recent years become a therapeutic tool. A tool that many of us probably rely on on without consciously realising. Bibliotherapy is an age-old idea that literature can be therapeutic and promote healing, and “has been used since the Greeks called their libraries pharmacies of ‘medicine for the soul’” (Rubin, 1978, p.xi)[iv]. However, the term was first ‘coined’ after the First World War and has branched out from religious texts being read to hospital patients, soldiers, and prison inmates, to literary texts and writing.
In more obvious terms: reading makes you happier. Yet the facilitating of a ‘bibliotherapy’ session in, for example, a one-to-one CBT session focused on helping individuals identify and better deal with their own issues through relation to literary texts can lead to powerful responses. A bibliotherapy situation, in this context, must consist of a participant, a facilitator and some literature shared between them, and this can be branched out to creative responses written by the participant such as poems, short stories, diary entries, recollections etc. This method can help participants understand themselves better by allowing them to think through unresolved issues, memories, feelings and thoughts in a manner that a conversation may not. There is less pressure to respond immediately, instead of allowing more time for reflection. The written word can also allow you to voice things that you may not feel comfortable saying verbally, with many support forums and courses set up online that allow people to anonymously share and converse with others.
The ‘write what you know’ prompt is one that is often given to students of creative writing, encouraging them to take their experiences and fictionalising them. Students are also now encouraged to undertake self-reflection as part of assignments that may aid self-awareness and development. Writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gillman (The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892) Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar, 1963) and many others have both produced works out of their own experiences of depression and treatment. Writing therapy, to me, spawns from a similar place with similar intentions and aims.
I first recognised the calming effects of writing during a panic attack a few years ago. Unable to reach out and speak to anyone else about what sounded like a thousand monkeys in my brain, I spilt it out into a journal. At the time, I had not journaled since the age of 15, so my experiences of journaling were limited to tedious teenage accounts of what my day had been like. Having been in education continuously, most of my writing, even creatively, had also been purely for a predefined academic purpose: assignments. Yet writing down whatever came to my mind that night, without worrying about marks, external eyes, or whether it would be ‘good enough to turn into some sort of a piece’, and instead purely for my own peace of mind, prompted a deeper connection with words than what I had had so far.
The thing with spoken words (or frantically texted words if you’re of a certain age range with an addiction to technology), is that once they’re said they can’t be unsaid. My anxiety has often been almost akin to that of a drunk person, with no self-censor, and I only have to feel thankful that friends who have been at the receiving end of them have been patient and kind. While on the other hand, the fear of saying something wrong can also mute a person into total silence. On most days, I still red-pen and go back and edit much of what I say. Because as humans, we crave connection, empathy, expression, yet much of that can leave us feeling open and vulnerable. Much of these feelings of vulnerability come from fear of stigma and judgement, as, despite how much more we talk about mental health as a society and push much-needed campaigns such as Time to Talk and Mental Health Awareness Week, I think stigma still lingers in the corners, because there is still so much that is misunderstood. And while we should still keep pushing these conversations we should maybe ask better questions, write better think-pieces, (as I have attempted here), or more importantly, push for mental health funding. And for those times in which you are not feeling particularly brave about sharing, creativity, journaling and art can be the best mediums through which to channel the upheaval.
[iv] Rubin, R. J. (ed) (1978) Bibliotherapy Sourcebook. Phoenix: The Oryx Press.