Poetry Therapy



As I was reading other blogs, I noticed that some of the most thought-provoking posts are poetic.  I, myself, use poetry and music as a form of not only mental and emotional release, but also as a time to meditate and heal.  As stated by one profound blogger, “Poems can’t judge you for healing wrong but a therapist could” (thank you The Darkest Fairytale, your poems strike at the heart of today’s posting).

Many people self-medicate; that is, they do things that make them feel better, whether or not it is good for them.  This could be drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.  However, many people do use writing as a self-medication in lieu of seeking help in other ways, including therapy.  Now, there are many types of therapy and I will discuss them individually at a later time but just so people understand, therapy done correctly can be beneficial to anyone.  For today, I want to discuss the psychological benefits of poetry therapy.  Yes, there is such a thing…

Poetry Therapy

Black Dog is a phrase that Winston Churchill coined for depression. In the book, Killing the Black Dog (first written in 1997), writer and poet Les Murray wrote, “I’d disapproved of using poetry as personal therapy, but the Black Dog taught me better.  Get sick enough, and you’ll use any remedy you’ve got.”

History of Poetry Therapy

Let’s first start with a background on Poetry Therapy.  Poetry has been used for centuries as a form of ‘therapy’, going back to ancient Egypt.  The Greeks were also known to use poetry (being the first to realize and utilize words, emotion, and, thus, poetry) in the act of healing.  The Greek god, Apollo, was the god of poetry and medicine, along with other areas such as arts and music, prophecy and archery.  The combination of artistic creation paired well with medical healing ever since.  The first Poetic Therapist has been credited to Soranus, a Roman physician during the first 100 years AD.  He would prescribe the reading, listening, and watching of tragedy for his patients who were manic, and the same of comedy for his patients who were suffering from depression.

In the 18th century, poet William Cowper stated that writing poetry was his best remedy.  In the United States during this time, a hospital in Pennsylvania used the reading and writing of poetry as supplemental treatment for patients in mental asylums.  But it wasn’t until Benjamin Rush (an American doctor in the early 19th century) who truly introduced the use of poetry as therapy.

In the 1920s, a pharmacist, Eli Greifer, started to prescribe poetry to patients who were obtaining drug prescriptions.  Years later, he started a therapy group known as poem-therapy in New York which continually expanded until he started working with two psychiatrists where Greifer was encouraged to write the book Principles of Poetry Therapy in 1963.  Thus, he’s been accredited with coining the term Poetry Therapy. In 1969 the Association for Poetry Therapy was created and many different medical professionals started to develop institutes to train others on poetry therapy throughout the United States. In the 1980s, this association, ironically, became known as the National Association for Poetry Therapy.  In 2002, the National Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy was developed and became the body to train and certify poetry therapists and is still currently the organization that represents poetry therapy and their therapists.

Many different medical and mental fields use poetry therapy today.  This includes psychiatric and mental health hospitals, senior and nursing homes, prisons, schools, residential and out-patient treatment programs, and so many other hospitals and settings.  It is also beneficial for all ages.  Poetry therapy is utilized in the United States and other countries.

How It’s Used

Poetry therapy uses poems, as well as songs and stories, to encourage personal healing as well as mental, physical, and emotional growth and awareness. This type of therapy is used to evoke responses from its clients through the creation, listening, and the sharing of the written creation.  Poetry touches people very deeply; people who do not benefit well to the traditional means of therapy can benefit to a more emotionally expressive poetic therapy.  It can be easier to put painful emotions and memories down in a poem rather than to speak openly about them to others, including a therapist.

It is also important to note that poetry therapy is a great tool to use in group therapy; members share poems and stories that they write (or have read) to the group and these poems can resonate with other members who may have the same feelings or have gone through the same experience.  Someone who is having difficulty with grief, for example, could identify with someone else who is trying to heal from that trauma as well.  The reading of poetry that expresses the trauma experienced can elicit emotions and help people to go through the grieving process.  And, the reading of poems that express the ability to move on, or how to see an angel in the clouds of the one you lost, can help someone to continue to carry the memories yet defeat the sadness.

The Therapist

A poetry therapist will not only be skilled in clinical psychology but also in literature because they must be able to select pieces of poetry or short stories that a patient can connect with.  The therapist will provide an environment that is comfortable and conducive of talking freely and with great support.  As we all know, there is no bad poetry; there is meaning in everything that is created and the support of that art, in any form, has a healing power like no other.  The main goal, although varying from person to person, is to empower someone with the understanding of their own emotions.  To be able to express and cope with certain traumas and experiences so that someone can have a healthier self-esteem thereby have improved relationships with others.

Poetry therapy is expressive; many people find that using symbols, metaphors, colorful adjectives, and outlandish stories is less intimidating than general therapy, thereby giving someone the ability to replace maladaptive thinking and behaviors with more positive ones.

Other Goals of Poetry Therapy

Aside from what has already been mentioned, this type of therapy can be extremely beneficial for those dealing with other, serious conditions such as a terminal illness, veterans (not just ones who suffer from PTSD), and those with learning disabilities.  Other benefits include learning better communication and coping skills, developing a stronger sense of self, learning empathy and reading others’ emotional standings, and the release of pain or stress that is more controlled and not violent.

Following is a list containing many different areas of concern that can also benefit from poetry therapy.  Now, this is not a full and comprehensive list, mind you, but it does give you a sense of the different areas that this type of therapy can help:

  • Stress and Anxiety
  • Depression – both short and long term
  • PTSD
  • Post-Partum Depression
  • Addictive Disorders (eating, gambling, drinking, etc.)
  • Grief
  • Abusive recovery (spousal, childhood, rape, etc.)
  • Relationship/family/social struggles
  • Phobias
  • Personality disorders (Borderline, obsessive compulsive, narcissism, etc.)
  • Anger issues (including bullying or being bullied)
  • Suicidal thoughts or tendencies
  • Having special needs
  • Raising a special needs child

I had a blog just about 8 years ago where I posted my poetry under a dubious name.  Unfortunately, life became so full that I let my poetry fall to the wayside.  I became a doctor and have since returned to the use of poetry, music, and the arts for my own healing and renewal, as well as for the benefit of others.  You don’t have to have your writings read by others; it can be for your eyes only which can help in the healing process too.  However, if you do choose to share your writings, I can attest that they help others who have felt the way you do when you wrote your poem or story. There may just be one person, but that one person’s life is one you can change, so keep writing!


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