Writing as a Form of Mental Health Advocacy

Content notice: This post discusses mental illness, suicidal ideation, and psychiatric hospitalization. Please only continue reading if you feel safe enough to do so. 


As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close, I want to talk about the use of creative writing to eliminate stigma around mental illness. 

Throughout my entire body of work, perhaps the most common theme of all is mental illness — and in particular, my experience with it. 

Today, I’m going to walk you through the process of how this happened, and why. And, hopefully, it will encourage you to write about other vulnerable or “taboo” subjects in your own work.

Part One: Denial

I’m going to be completely honest with you: for the majority of my life, I never spoke about my mental illness. In fact, I was in complete denial that I was even experiencing it. I was ashamed of that part of myself and wanted to hide it from everyone possible.

I resisted treatment, even though everyone in my life was urging me to get help. By the time I finally accepted treatment, I was 17 and actively suicidal on a daily basis. That night, I called a crisis line, was brought to the hospital by ambulance, and was admitted on a mental health unit for what would be the first of many times.

My life didn’t magically get better when I started treatment, but it was a pivotal moment in terms of accepting the reality: that I was dealing with severe mental health issues, and I couldn’t handle them on my own.

Part Two: Seeing Others Speak Out

Around that same time, I came upon a TED Talk by Kevin Breel called Confessions of a depressed comic. I’d recommend watching it, but in summary, it’s a brief account of the speaker’s own experience with depression.

Seeing that young man speak so openly about his experience with mental illness was baffling to me. It was a lightbulb moment; I realized, Hey — this thing I’m dealing with, that feels so heavy and so burdensome — can actually be a force for good

I realized that, even though my mental illness was debilitating and suffocating, I could help break down the stigma in society just by being open about my experience. 

It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually — as I cycled through countless medications, psychiatrist evaluations, hospitalizations, and therapy sessions — I accepted the fact that I was mentally ill. 

And I eventually realized that blending my lived experience with my professional writing career could be my way to build awareness. 

Part Three: Merging the Two Worlds

As I’ve mentioned on the blog, for me, writing has literally always been an act of survival. For as long as I can remember, creative writing has been my main source of comfort — long before I came to terms with my mental illness.

So, it was a natural progression that the poetry I shared started focusing on my mental health issues — it was a topic I had a lot of emotions about, and that I felt the need to process through the act of writing.

I should also mention that two of my favourite poets of all time — Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski — also centred their bodies of work almost entirely around their experiences of depression. 

As I read more and more of their work, I saw a model for what my career could look like: that I could be open and honest about my mental illness, but also actively re-shape and re-claim my own narrative into a cohesive, creative vision.

By the time I was 21, my first chapbook of poetry came out. The collection — called tulips — was entirely based around my experience with depression (and in particular, what it’s like to be hospitalized on a mental health unit). 

While hospitalization was, at times, very necessary in the course of my recovery, it was also a traumatic experience. Being locked in a unit — often very unclean, crowded, and full of individuals screaming and pounding on walls — is not the most comforting thing in the world. Being essentially stripped of your legal rights (at least for 72 hours) after being deemed unsafe to yourself is demoralizing. So, that was what I wrote about most in tulips.

Part Four: Connecting With Others

Since I’ve made this theme the focus of my work, I’ve been able to connect with so many people. Perhaps the most rewarding thing in the entire world is to perform somewhere and, after the reading, have people come up to me and talk about their own experience with mental illness.

It’s been a tremendously healing thing — to have honest conversations with other people about their struggles. Because, so much of the time, I feel awkward or uncomfortable even bringing up the subject of mental health (i.e. when starting a new job). 

Our society is inundated with pervasive beliefs about mental illness — that it’s an embarrassing, shameful thing, that it’s “not real,” or that people experiencing it should “just get over it.”

Yet, through poetry, I’ve been able to start conversations with others, and to hopefully normalize the concept of talking about mental health. It’s not a perfect solution; I still feel shame about my mental illness on a daily basis, and I still encounter stigma constantly. But it’s a start.

Wrapping Up

I hope this article inspires others to talk about mental health, to write about mental health, and to actively work to combat stigma. 

So, this May, remember that art can act as a bridge between painful experiences and creative expression. Whatever you feel shameful about —  whatever makes you want to hide — try writing about it. See what happens when you open up (even if you’re the only one reading your work.)


Thank you, as always, for reading the Writing Advice series. Be sure to follow the blog to be notified of each new article. And happy Mental Health Awareness month.


Please note: If you’re dealing with mental health issues (and especially if you’re feeling suicidal), there are resources available. Across Canada, there are many free crisis lines you can call. Or, if you’re in another country, try consulting this list.

Why Writing Often Flourishes in Times of Crisis

There’s no doubt that this point in history is frightening. 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated every normal aspect of modern life: the comfort of lingering in coffee shops, the hustle and bustle of busy shopping malls, or even the act of hosting a small dinner party among friends.

Combined with the constant flood of negative news stories, this situation has undoubtedly shaken us all. 

Crises aren’t fun; they come with unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, and danger.

But if you’re a writer, you might have noticed a tricky paradox: that your best work often comes out of the most difficult experiences of your life. 

Let’s dig into that concept a bit more.

[Content Notice: the rest of this article mentions experiences of trauma, mental illness, and hospitalization. Please only continue reading if you feel that it’s safe for you to do so.]

The Myth of the Tortured Artist 

It’s a common stereotype that, especially for poets, you need to experience extreme hardship to create great art. 

This is a dangerous belief: it implies that artists can’t find inspiration from joy or happiness. And it often justifies self-destructive behavior (i.e. alcoholism) as the price of being a creative genius.

I’ve always struggled with this myth of the tortured artist because, on one hand, I recognize that creativity doesn’t require pain. 

On the other hand, I recognize that some of my best poetry has been written during mental health crises. 

My Personal Experience

For example, my experiences of being hospitalized on psychiatric wards informed much of my first chapbook. My chronic depression and suicidality were some of the foremost themes of that collection.

I’ve always considered writing as an act of survival. I truly believe that I would have committed suicide many years ago if I’d never begun writing creatively.

Long before I was able to accept help for my mental illness, I supplemented treatment with the act of writing poetry. Writing was — first and foremost — a way for me to process trauma that I was experiencing in real-time. 

It allowed me to take my overwhelming emotional experiences and not only record them, but transform them into words with meaning.

After all, writing confessional poetry doesn’t just mean dumping all of your unfiltered thoughts onto the page (although some writers may choose to adopt that via a stream-of-consciousness style).

To me, great confessional poetry involves taking something that feels overwhelming (like depression) and reflecting upon it. 

After that point of reflection, the writer uses every tool at their disposal (like literary devices) to re-shape that experience into art. Similar to the act of meditation, writing involves finding distance between you and your thoughts. And that is a powerful process.

And the reality is that many of the greatest writers of all time grappled with severe mental health issues; Dickinson, Plath, and Bukowski (just to name a few) have conveyed their emotional pain in their work.

So, while not a hard-and-fast rule, the myth of the tortured artist holds some truth. While pain isn’t a necessary component of good writing, it has often been a source of inspiration for artists throughout history.

How can we apply this concept to the current crisis?

I mention all of this because I believe that this point in history holds unique potential.

No, it’s not good that tens of thousands of people have died of COVID-19 (and many more have become seriously ill). There is no justification for the global experience of suffering right now — it’s horrible and unthinkable.

But what we can learn from history is that times of crisis often lead to immense creative output. 

It doesn’t make the current situation any better or worthwhile, but perhaps it can motivate us to reflect on our experiences and comment on them through art.

The reality is that, for many of us (who are fortunate enough to not be on the front lines), we’ll be confined to our homes for an undetermined number of weeks or even months. 

So while we’re stuck indoors, perhaps we can use this time to create. Because what’s the alternative?

Yes, working from home can help us feel productive; FaceTiming our friends can help us feel connected to those we love; cleaning our homes can help us feel organized. But what will we do to fill that aching void — an emptiness that threatens to consume us?

If you’re a writer, the keyboard has never looked better.


A Note on Writing Advice 

It definitely feels strange to write my usual Writing Advice articles during this time of global crisis. As such, my blog posts will likely have heavier themes than usual. 

I hope that you still find them useful, and please hit the Follow button if you’d like to be notified of future posts. 

Thank you, as always, for reading the blog, and I hope that you & your loved ones are staying safe during this time.  


Disclaimer 

If you’re experiencing mental health struggles, there are many resources available. For example, if you’re in Canada, you can consult this link for a comprehensive overview of crisis lines and information. International readers can also visit the Suicide Stop website for a list of global helplines. 

However, this article is not meant to be used, nor should it be used, to diagnose or treat any medical condition. For diagnosis or treatment of any medical problem, consult your own physician.