The World Health Organization describes mental health as "the emotional and spiritual resilience, which enables us to enjoy life and survive pain, suffering and disappointment. It is a positive sense of wellbeing and an underlying belief in our and others dignity and worth. It is influenced by our experience and our genetic inheritance". “The Office for National Statistics estimates that 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health condition each year, and it is highly likely that you know someone who is suffering at present. 

In the past mental health conditions were closely associated with writers and artists. Think Virginia Woolf, think Sylvia Plath, think Leo Tolstoy, think Ezra Pound and think Ernest Hemingway. Many of the above suffered from bipolar or depression and most on the list ended up committing suicide.

In a post on the blog Brain Pickings the founder Maria Popova shared the following statement by Pulitzer prize winning author Katherine Anne Porter who remarked, “I think I’ve only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing. The other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water”. I was really struck by this statement. It feels like it really speaks to the challenge of mental health and the impact it can and does have.

The question I was left with after reflecting on what the writer Katherine Anne Porter had to say was: how useful expressive writing and the arts are in helping and supporting various forms of treatable mental health issues? From my personal experience, which is also supported by research, I believe writing and creative expression can go a long way and here’s why.

In one research study, research scientist Zorana Ivcevic Pringle found that people who engaged in everyday forms of creativity such as taking photographs, making a collage, or publishing in a literary magazine tended to be more open-minded, curious, positive, energetic, and motivated by their activity. The forms of everyday creativity also led to increased feelings of wellbeing and personal satisfaction compared to fellow classmates who were less engaged in everyday creative activities. 

In more recent research Professor Paul Dolan, psychologist, LSE economist, wellbeing adviser to the government and author of the recently published book Happiness By Design, suggests that the way to tackle treatable mental health is not by going on a spending spree, trying to regain your lost youth or reading self-help books. Not sure if I agree on the latter.

The real solution he suggests costs nothing and involves focusing on what gives you pleasure and doing more of it. That can be as simple as switching off your mobile phone, listening to music, going for walks or spending time with friends. I do agree with him here.

In the same Brain Pickings article mentioned earlier the founder Maria Papova cites the work of psychiatrist and neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen whose research cited that many successful writers became successful not because of their mental health but despite it. Andreasen seems in my mind to be suggesting that the activity of writing and creative expression actually warded off mental health issues because of the levels of concentration and discipline involved in the writing process.

The tag line for my journaling and writing business is, “Writing changes lives and lives are changed by writing”. I adopted this line because I had a hunch that many people battling mental health may well have survived and lived beyond their symptoms because of regular and ongoing engagement with writing or the creative arts. I knew there was a growing body of research to support this, which is why I have been a champion of journaling and therapeutic writing for many years.

I have kept a journal for over 30 years and cite this as one of my wellbeing contributors and restorative practices. I also recall a time back in my thirties when I was struggling with high-level stress, overwhelmed as a single mum and the pressures of a demanding job and accelerating career. I had been signed off work with low level depression and it was a combination of both journaling and painting that helped me connect back in with myself and at the same time manage my mental health which resulted in me finally returning back to work, handing in my notice and going down the self-employed route. Since then journaling as a way of managing my emotions and feelings has become a life-long practice.

Writing a journal can contribute to better mental health on many levels: 

  • It’s a way of getting to know and understand yourself better which can put you in a stronger position to manage your mental health and wellbeing
  • Expressive writing can be an effective tool for clarifying your thoughts, feelings and emotions and making sense of what think and feel
  • Writing about painful and complex feelings and emotions can effectively decrease the intensity of some emotions and allow you to be more present and mindful
  • Writing in a journal about difficult relationships and conversations can help you gain different perspectives and points of view, which can help in resolving certain issues and misunderstandings
  • Writing therapeutically and creatively can provide greater access to the right brain and creative thinking channels that generate solutions to your everyday problems and challenges
  • Additional research in the Journal of Psychological Science reveal that writing your thoughts and then physically throwing them away goes along way in clearing your mind.

Mental health doesn’t just happen to other people. It could happen to you. Your mental health can impact your performance and productivity as well as your happiness. The good news is you can actively play a leading role in taking care of your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing as well as getting and receiving good care and support from others. I hope this article inspires you to do just that.