Lessons learned from sitting in on a writing therapy group for people grappling with mental illness

By Gabrielle Flam

As a writer, the link between mental illness and creativity deeply intrigues me. I studied literature in college and continued on to pursue a master of fine arts degree in creative writing, focusing specifically on poetry. I have always been drawn to writing as a form of self-expression, but I had never thought of how I used it as therapy until one semester in undergrad a poetry workshop happened to overlap with another course I was taking on Freudian psychoanalysis. It was then when I began to realize that writing for me (and many others) was in fact a form of therapy, and a way of working through deep-seated issues. Perhaps even a symptom of our neurosis (if you agree with the Freudian definition of a symptom as a way of coping).

As a child of divorce who was deemed “sensitive” my entire life, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety as a teenager, with bouts of depression here and there to go along with it. I just “felt” things a lot more than others — or at least that’s how my parents would rationalize it all to me. I went through years of therapy and even gave into meds at times. In college though, living alone far from home for the first time, writing became my most important coping mechanism. Writing saved my life.

This brings me to these important questions that have fascinated me since then: What is this seemingly innate connection between mental illness and creativity? I wonder, why are people who suffer from mental illness drawn to art? Is it that they’re naturally more creative, or is it that they are searching for something different to heal them? And finally then, if so, can art really be therapy?

These questions have begun to be examined in various disciplines. In regards to writing therapy specifically, there is much happening right here in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles. I was fortunate enough, by strange coincidence, to meet a wonderful member of this cause, local poet India Radfar.

Radfar taught a poetry workshop titled “The Heart Speaks” for the Santa Monica nonprofit “Step Up on Second.” For those of you who don’t already know “Step Up,” it is a wonderful place, which takes in mentally ill homeless and provides psychological support and rehabilitation. This workshop was connected to the UCLA program run by Kendra Knudsen, “The Creative Minds Project,” which is a group that facilitates and studies the use of the arts for healing. Within this class, formerly and currently homeless adults would use writing poetry as a way of coping with their own mental illnesses.

Sadly though, this program has come to an end in the area, moving to another facility in West Hollywood. Step Up on Second will still be other types classes offered in Santa Monica, but the distance could keep many current members from continuing to attend this writing group.

I had the opportunity last month to speak with members of this course and hear their stories and experiences. I arrived on a lovely sunny day to have coffee with a motley crew that makes up about half of the original class members. Most are a little disheveled and much older than my twenty-something self, but all with bright-eyed enthusiasm and ready to talk about writing therapy and their experiences with it. They gush about how much they’ve missed each other and how excited they are to meet again for one last time.

Firstly, I am taken aback by a Native American man named Little Horn. He has long dark hair, many tattoos (even covering his face), and is impressively articulate. He explains to me that he has suffered from substance abuse problems, has served time in prison, and was homeless for seven years before now being housed for five. He describes in detail his discovery of his unique synesthesia and how the program and poetry course helped him get back on his feet. It also helped him feel more alive than ever.

“Writing,” he tells me, “is a reason to live.”

This is a common sentiment among the group. Martha, an older woman in the group, shares how poetry therapy has helped her by allowing her to explore how she thinks about her mental illness. After some time, she tells me that she finally came to a conclusion through her writing that “God can take this [illness] away anytime, but doesn’t to remind me that there is something greater than myself.” I am touched by her insightfulness and how successfully she has used writing to cope.

Another member reveals that she “didn’t know she could do it,” but once she started she couldn’t stop. Others tell about how they used their writing in order to create allegories for their own struggles in life and then work through them in fiction, which was far easier than dealing with them in actuality.

And then there is the harsh reality of the world they live in. On the streets, when people are struggling to get by, death is prevalent. India tells about how when a member of the group passes away, they use their writing as a sort of memorial, a means to discuss what’s happened and share their memory. Above all it seems that this group is also most importantly a community. For people so alienated from society, having others to rely on who are like family may be the most beneficial part of the workshop. One man says that it helps to write, but it helps even more to be able to do it with others dealing with similar issues.

The most surprising thing to me is that when I ask most members about their backgrounds in writing and art, they have a surprisingly impressive amount. A few female members have degrees in or have studied literature, and Little Horn has published pieces as well displayed paintings at shows. An elderly woman named Jill quotes Wordsworth to me, saying that poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.”

“Wow.” I think to myself. “These people know their stuff.”

At the end of our meeting, as our coffees begin to drain and we slurp at the bottoms of our cups, Little Horn asks me about a script tattoo I have around my wrist. When I reveal that it is an obscure quote from James Joyce’s Ulysses, the rest enthusiastically chime in praise of the book. I smile in wide-eyed wonder. When someone who doesn’t know me asks for an explanation of the meaning of my tattoo, it usually ends with disappointment and confusion — but not here. This group appreciates it, understands it. Some even ask me to write it down for them. Could it be they really get me? I begin to wonder, “Have my last three years in cold, academic, craft-focused poetry workshops where work is torn down arbitrarily at every chance possible jaded me from remembering the importance of writing as therapy and community? Have I forgotten how happy it used to make me?” Seems so.

Although at the end of all this I do not have definite answers to my questions, I conclude that whatever the innate connection between mental illness and art, writing most definitely is a successful form of therapy. Don’t lose sight of art’s healing power, even when trying to make a career of it. Even writing this piece for me was an important remembering of why I started writing in the first place. Let art be what it needs to be for you. It works.

As one member of this group said to me, “You can’t tell the difference between healing and art, because art heals.” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen it in the twinkle of these humans’ eyes, in the stories shared, and by remembering my own experience through theirs.

Step Up on Second continues to host certain volunteer run groups. For more information, call (310) 394-6889.