Writing Recoveries: International Conference for Writing Interventions for Recovery from Mental Illness

Posted by Carolyn Jess-Cooke on April 27, 2018

The two-year research project led by Dr Carolyn Jess-Cooke in exploration of the impact of creative writing on the recovery of young people suffering from mental illness culminated in a two day conference at the University of Glasgow throughout 22-23 March 2018. The following blog post captures the talks and events throughout and podcasts of talks are found at the bottom of this page.

Joshua M. Smyth, Distinguished Professor of Biobehavioral Health and Medicine from Pennsylvania State University, delivered a fascinating keynote address in which he detailed several lab studies that examined the effects of talking and writing about emotional experiences on health. The studies engaged randomised participants in two types of writing exercises: expressive (the kind of writing pioneered by Professor Smyth and his colleague, Prof James Pennebaker) and ‘neutral’ writing. Smyth’s studies showed that samples showed that all participants demonstrated a powerful disclosure mechanism at work, regardless of their writing skill – people wanted to disclose. An early study involved placing postcards in public spaces, asking people to write a secret. The study results in hundreds of thousands of postcards disclosing secrets (from ‘I pee in the shower’ to disclosures of fear) and demonstrated a powerful human need to share.

Other studies showed that writing had powerful effects on people suffering from physical illness. One of the most profound statements made was that people with physical wounds healed better and faster when they engaged with expressive writing. Smyth also found that the writing process mattered. When he looked at the contextual factors involved in the writing trials – whether people were writing in a lab with others or sent home to write alone – it seemed that people who wrote alone presented worsened symptoms. He found that narrative is a causal agent. The writing exercises weren’t cathartic, but provided meaningful ways of labelling and acknowledging experiences and achieving a sense of mastery. Other outcomes involved a reduced impact of rumination, neuroanatomical changes in memories, an increased capacity to function, better social support, and normalised physiological states. While Smyth indicated that there is still a lot we don’t know about why and how writing is beneficial, I felt very hopeful about the future after hearing the outcomes of his studies. Have a look at his published work here, and listen to the podcast below.

Victoria Field is an experienced poetry therapist, and her book Writing Works: A Resource Handbook for Therapeutic Writing Workshops and Activities is an excellent guide to creative writing for therapeutic purposes. Her talk combined personal motivations for using writing as a healing medium and filmed workshop sessions in which she used therapeutic writing for people with dementia. Moira Hansen, the current Lord Kelvin/Adam Smith PhD Scholar in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, gave highly interesting paper on Robert Burns’ relationship with Frances Anna Dunlop and explored letters between them that indicated that Burns’ suffered from a mood disorder. Claire Williamson, poet and Programme Leader for Metanoia Institute’s MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes (CWTP), gave some excellent advice on creating a safe workshop environment, whilst Clare Scott, the chair of Lapidus, spoke about Lapidus’ values and the importance of thinking carefully about ethics when engaging in CWTP. We also heard from Christine Muir about some fascinating work being done at the Scottish Recovery Network with story, with participants constructing and sharing their own personal stories under the ethos, ‘to own your story is to own your life’, and Carolyn Jess-Cooke interviewed Stephanie Butland, author of Lost for Words and Bah! To Cancer, about her writing process.

The second day of the conference, Friday 23rd March, began with a talk by James Withey, founder of the Recovery Letters project. James spoke powerfully about the origin of the project and its enormous success, with strangers invited to write and publish stories on his website about their own recovery from mental illness. Addressed ‘Dear You’, each letter is designed to be read by someone currently suffering from mental illness and therefore offers hope. As James said, ‘the voice of depression tries to untangle the voice that takes over like a cuckoo’. What I found immensely inspiring was how the writers of the letters felt empowered and inspired by the act of writing, too, though in some ways this provided an interesting contrast to what Professor Smyth said of his study – that participants who engaged in writing exercises designed with a reader in mind didn’t fare as well as those writing for themselves. Clearly there is more work done to be done here.

Dr Sophie Nicholls from the University of Teeside presented a fascinating paper on ‘remaking ourselves in words’, or the idea of creative writing as a process of making in which we shape ‘word-things’ (Kristeva, 1996: 247) or objects for our felt experiences. Frances Williams spoke about policy frameworks and the current public discourse surrounding ‘therapeutic writing’ in Wales, whilst Jay Griffiths, author of the brilliant Tristimania, spoke about poetry and metaphor as medicine: why poetry is psychologically healing, its connections in myth, the way that metaphor and madness are aligned. Finally, we heard from Dr Bridget Escolme about writing and performing mental health, and poets Seanín Hughes and Mairi Murphy closed the conference with a stunning reading of their poetry infused with mental health themes.

All talks (with the exception of Dr Escolme’s paper) are available as podcasts below. Please do email Carolyn with any feedback on the conference as she explores funding options for the next project – carolyn.jess-cooke@glasgow.ac.uk.


Prof Josh Smyth, keynote address

Moira Hansen, Claire Williamson, and Clare Scott 22.3.18








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