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.
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.