Creative writing in recovery from severe mental illness
by Robert King, Philip Neilsen and Emma White
Creative activity has a substantial history in psychosocial rehabilitation for people with more severe forms of mental illness. Creativity has sometimes taken the form of diversional therapy, with the primary role of occupying time in a satisfying way or promoting social interaction. In other contexts, it has taken the form of an adjunct to psychological therapy, either as a window into the unconscious or as a means for promoting communication among clients, such as children for whom verbal communication alone might be difficult. Creative writing therapists informed by psychoanalytic theory have reported on the benefits of quite complex and sophisticated forms of writing, such as fictionalized autobiography. Poetry therapy is one of the longest established types of writing therapy, and has the practical virtue of brevity and the creative virtue of encouraging creative play with imagery.
The authors of this article identified three theoretical frameworks that explain why creative writing might play an important role in recovery from mental illness. These theories propose that writing can contribute to the development of personal identity, to the repair of symbolic functioning, and that it can remediate cognitive functioning. When considered in the light of a possible genetic link between schizotypy and creativity, these theories help us to understand why writing is an important and valued form of self-expression for many people recovering from severe mental health problems, such as schizophrenia.
The therapeutic value of creative writing might be most effectively achieved when there is a focus on the processes and techniques of writing, and not just on self-expression. When a person develops skill in writing process, and technique builds, it is likely to enhance the capacity to develop and sustain a coherent narrative. Equally importantly, these skills expand capacity to make use of locally- or informally-available resources. Writing technique is, in part, concerned precisely with the development of this ability. A focus on process and technique might also optimize the cognitive remediation benefits associated with creative writing. This is because the development of writing technique requires the development of cognitive procedures starting with basic processes, such as concentration, and then learning rules and more complex decision-making concerning style and form. Of all the creative arts, writing is the least dependent on equipment and/or special environments. It therefore lends itself to deployment in a wide range of settings.
International Journal of Mental Health Nursing (2013) 22, 444–452