Pete's Poetry workshop has been the most popular group at a CAMHs inpatient unit for a number of years. It turns out that young people love poetry - not the poetry imposed at school, but a poetry group that let them go deep in a safe and trusted environment. Time and time again I have been blown away by the extraordinary expression, bravery and understanding that young people possess. It is my deepest privilege to share this space with such amazing people!
Since I started the group there have been so many different people attending and I have always feared that the magic of the group might dissipate. It never has. I have learnt over the years when to have input and when to step back. There have been so many people who have come to the group saying they don't do poetry, but by the time they leave hospital they have books filled with poems they have written. Poetry has the ability to unlock so many deeply buried feelings. Sharing these feelings with peers and myself takes a little bit of the pressure off - that can be really important for people who are under extreme pressure.
Putting words on a page can also help people get a little distance so they can reflect on their feelings, behaviours and the driving (or destructive) forces in their lives. Of course it might just be laughter people want and there is always a lot of that in my groups. The therapeutic value of laughter can never be underestimated!
Being appreciated, applauded and supported by your peers and family is very good for self-esteem.
Young person in a CAMHs unit
"Thank you for poetry. I never really got into it at school but as everyone knows, Pete's poetry is different and brilliant. It's inspired me to keep writing even when I leave."
When young people are struggling everything can fall apart so easily. Getting out of bed becomes difficult. School can seem too hard, especially if there are issues of bullying or isolation. Relationships with friends and family can become strained.
It can be the saddest thing watching someone you love retreating from life and losing all interest in 'getting better'.
Most of the young people I work with are easily some of the kindest, most intelligent and brilliant people you could ever meet. There can be so many reasons why things go wrong. And perhaps so many more reasons why things (therapies, strategies, coping techniques and medication ) don't go right.
Writing is a unique therapeutic device because no one writes the same. There are as many opportunities to learn as there are to teach. One of the key attributes of a writing practitioner is being able to listen. In my experience young people want to be heard, they are navigating such a complex world and are so often judged by stereotype and expectation.
Writing is one thing and there are lists of benefits - “reduced blood pressure, improved mood, reduced depressive symptoms, and fewer post-traumatic intrusion/avoidance symptoms" Baikie KA, Wilhelm K (2005). "Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing". Advances in Psychiatric Treatment.
For me, I don't think there are many better therapies than connection. The key connections for young people are their families or carers, their friends, their school and social lives. The job of the writing practitioner is to reignite the ability to connect again. Nothing more, nothing less, something small and something very big and life changing.
How does it happen?
Young people struggling with mental health issues are often picked up by school and the pastoral system can be so helpful. Running groups in school can help young people stay in the school environment and keep connections with their friends. I spent a number of years in a primary school working with a young autistic boy. Working with his parents, teacher, autistic services and a speech and language therapist created a really strong platform for him to integrate and prosper in a mainstream school.
Teachers are child experts, managing so many different presentations as well as adhering to curriculum needs.