The Connection Between Writing and Mental Health

How many of you knew that mental health awareness week was this month? My guess is not many of you. Unlike other health issues that receive more attention, such as breast cancer and heart disease, mental health issues often get pushed under the rug because of their stigma.

There is something wrong with this picture. How are we to understand mental illness and disorders and actively promote treatment and support for those affected by them? This is where writing comes in.

We’ve all read books for school (or for fun, if you’re a book nerd like me) that feature mentally ill characters. You and your peers might consider the authors of these books “crazy.” While this is certainly not the right way to label people struggling with mental illness, it may make you wonder why so many writers seem to struggle with depression and other related disorders.

Turns out, you’re not the only person who may think so. Recent studies have suggested a connection between mental health disorders and writers. Many successful and influential writers have dealt with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental disorders throughout their lives. Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf all battled mental illness. These are the authors of books you’ve read in your English classes throughout the years. These authors are brilliant. These authors demonstrate the power of the written word in coping with mental illness.

How can you apply therapeutic writing to your own life? I’m not suggesting you write a novel as a coping skill, but journal writing is an excellent way to cope with emotions. It’s helped me immensely over the years. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Scribble. Your journal might look like a two-year-old got ahold of it, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re getting all your emotions out on paper without inhibition. I know that when I am most upset, my journal entries are barely legible.
  2. Record your symptoms and treatment. Not only can this be therapeutic, it also serves as a great way to keep track of your mood, medication side effects, and possible triggers that could be causing certain symptoms. Being blatantly honest about the emotions and struggles you encounter sometimes helps you sort out your thoughts and feelings. Plus it serves as a great way to track the trends in your behavior and identify ways to cope with situations as you encounter them in the future.
  3. You don’t have to write every day. I always start out trying to write an entry every day, but it only stresses me out when I don’t follow my own rule. If you want to write every day, go for it, but you’re not obligated to. Write whenever inspiration strikes. Write whenever you’re feeling at your worst. Write whenever your head is overflowing with emotions and you just have to get them all out.

Journaling is a great coping mechanism for sorting through emotional issues, but be sure to also check out the resources that the MSU Counseling Center offers if you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness. Visit http://www.counseling.msu.edu/ for more information.

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