Creative Writing and Mental Health

By Sarah Edmonds and Dr. Heather F. McClintock PhD MSPH MSW 

This is the sixth part of a IH Blog series, Global Mental Health: Burden, Initiatives and Special Topics.

Part VI – Special Topic: Creative Writing and Mental Health 

Standard treatments approaches (counseling and/or medication) for addressing mental health issues are important, yet alternative approaches and strategies are growing in popularity. One alternative approach is Creative Art Therapy (CAT) which encompasses the use of many creative mediums (e.g. visual art, music, dance, and writing). The literature base indicates that CAT may be low-risk and high benefit for persons with severe mental illness. However, further methodologically rigorous studies are needed to substantiate the effectiveness of these approaches. 

Writing is one medium that has been widely used and studied in application as a tool for enhancing mental health through different forms aimed at self-improvement such as journaling, diaries, and dream logs. In contrast, the usage of writing as a craft through the creative process is an approach that has received relatively little attention. This approach involves persons writing for an outside audience at the point of creation rather than solely for the writer’s own benefit or reflection. Writing as a craft gives the writer the ability to form life and order out of thoughts and chaotic experiences. Some work has shown that a creative approach can help patients build their sense of “self” potentially helping them cope with difficult experiences. Improved confidence is a key mechanism through which creative writing may influence mental health. Research has shown that creative writing can help in building a sense of confidence, community, and connection among marginalized groups.

As a creative writer (SE), the statement “We create as a means of understanding the world around us and our place in it” is often used to describe why our creative process works in helping us deal with social issues or the emotional turmoil we feel in our own lives. As a woman with a minor physical disability, my fiction writing deals frequently with characters thriving despite sexism and ableism. The creative process whether applied through writing or other art forms aids us in coping and understanding our experiences enhancing our mental health. My friend, an eco-artist by profession, uses biodegradable materials and often inoculates her work with mushroom mycelia so that it grows and decays as is the process of all living things.

Other writers and artists that I know also say that “it’s always been easier for me to express emotions or come to terms with different things that have happened in my life through the written word,” “it’s something like meditation. I’m able to block out everything else and focus solely on what I’m creating. It’s like nothing else matters or exists,” and that “I feel like I would probably be in a worse spot mentally if I wasn’t creating.”

Based on my (SE) experiences as well as recent research, creative writing as a craft may have the potential to be a powerful tool for individuals to improve and maintain their mental health and wellness. As seen in a study conducted across the UK, creative writing workshops open to both residents and refugees allowed deeper connections between refugees and those whose community they were trying to become a part of. Also, it has been suggested that, in cases such as cultivating the mental health of people in protracted conflict areas such as the West Bank, creative expression and communication is a better stress-management tool than the current foreign aid systems that may not consider cultural biases in their methodology. The benefits of creative arts, in general, can also be seen through the work of organizations such as Colors of Connection’s project Courage in Congo that uses community-based art programs to provide therapeutically—as well as economically—beneficial skills to adolescents who are at risk or are victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). By making the program community-based, it also works towards fighting the social biases the community has against women and young girls.

Whether someone had a rough day at school, is struggling with a severe mental illness, or lives in a community that is unsafe or unwelcoming, the ability to craft narrative and shape events through words that are solely their own gives people a much-needed sense of strength and autonomy. Creative writing gives us the power to find a sense of self, the power to create a safe space in an unforgiving world, and the power to take control over who we are and how we connect to everything and everyone around us.

About the Authors:

Sarah Edmonds

Sarah Edmonds is a Dual Master of Arts in English and Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing student at Arcadia University. She has won awards for her work in film at festivals such as the BareBones International Film and Music Festival. Her creative work focuses on giving voice to underrepresented groups; she is currently working on a short documentary about biracial women’s identity struggles in the United States. While working with the Carroll County Media Center, she produced local news and interview segments about substance abuse and mental health awareness. Her main goal in her professional and creative work is to open dialogues about topics that normally carry social stigma so that no one ever has to be afraid to get help or to be who they truly are.

Dr. Heather F. McClintock PhD MSPH MSW

Dr. McClintock is an IH Section Member and Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health, College of Health Sciences at Arcadia University. She earned her Master of Science in Public Health from the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. McClintock received her PhD in Epidemiology from the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on health behavior and promotion. Her research broadly focuses on the prevention, treatment, and management of chronic disease and disability globally. Recent research aims to examine health literacy and intimate partner violence in Sub-Saharan Africa. Prior to completing her doctorate she served as a Program Officer at the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and a Senior Project Manager in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Pennsylvania. At the University of Pennsylvania she led several research initiatives that involved improving patient compliance and access to quality healthcare services including the Spectrum of Depression in Later Life Study and Integrating Management for Depression and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus Study.

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