Express Yourself: Poetry and Mental Health

delves into the way that mental health is being portrayed within contemporary poetry

Image: Bad Betty Press

On the 9 October, I had the privilege of going to a poetry event in York. It was a tour of theBad Betty Press anthology The Dizziness of Freedom, a poetry book sup ported by the Arts Council and backed by the local poetry company Say Owt, who co-hosted the event.

In the book, fifty poets put their own spin on the topic of mental health and at the event we got to hear many of the featured poems. The venue was a grand, old church which really complimented the powerful words spoken by everyone at the event that night.

Mental health is a difficult topic to talk about and it often can be considered taboo to even mention it in passing. Everyone has their own personal relationship with it and opinions can differ so much that often makes it difficult to know how to express yourself in a way that doesn’t feel awkward and potentially uncomfortable. Of course, that is something that depends a lot on what sort of person you are.

The beautiful thing about the poetry I heard at The Dizziness of Freedom event, and in a lot of other performance poetry I’ve witnessed, is that it felt like a glimpse into someone else’s world and that’s something we often don’t get to witness. All the poetry performances I have attended have been incredibly welcoming events and open to all sorts of topics which could be perceived as delicate to touch on. I’ve heard poetry about personal relationships, experiences of loss, reflections on people’s minds. Each poem will be as direct or indirect as the poet wishes but each and every poem still feels just as personal. In some sense, the poetry is relatable due to the pure humanity that is often found between the lines.

I think poetry events like this have some how managed to lift the idea that people can’t speak their mind as freely as they might sometimes need to. In my experience, audience members aren’t there to judge and often are too focused on the poetry itself to consider the poem’s relationship with the poet.Poetry slams and other similar events are so focused on connecting to the words and sharing thoughts and ideas that it almost seems to take the poet out of focus. Instead we put into perspective the whole audience’s connection to what is being said, and how we connect to the piece as a collective.

Each poem reflects the poet’s mind and therefore all are naturally very unique which I think, in itself, invites people to be honest and true in what they write. If you go to an event and witness a wide range of different approaches to the same art form, I personally think it’s difficult not to be inspired to take your own approach to it. I also think it proves that there is no limitation to what can be covered in poetry and how many ways similar topics can be approached and spoken about.

That’s why poetry is so freeing, because it’s almost impossible to do it wrong. If you write down what your heart feels and what you want to express, then you’re already on the right track. People go and listen to poetry so they can connect to others and catch glimpses of how other people think. Each poet will have their own reason for writing, I know many people who write because they feel they need to, because by writing things down they are creating a way to talk about what’s going through their minds. Not only this, by writing down how you feel, either in poetry or other forms of writing, it allows you to better understand yourself and have somewhere to release all the thoughts in your head.

Another important thing poetry in relation to mental health acheives is that the poetry raises awareness for how diverse a subject mental health is, and how differently we all experience it. It highlights and celebrates the unique approaches and opinions of people that might otherwise not get the chance to speak out and make a difference. I think for people who suffer with mental illness, art is often a brilliant way to express difficult thoughts and feelings, that might otherwise be hard to articulate. Some peo ple really struggle to know how to go about expressing these issues, so to be able to write them down and then speak about them to a room of people – who quite possibly have felt the same before – is both amazing and liberating.

It’s very easy to feel alone in a city, let alone if you are struggling to understand your own mind, but the truth is, however alienated you might feel, someone else has felt the same. Art, and poetry in particular, give you the chance to connect with all of these people, allowing you not to feel quite so alone.

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