Does anyone feel lonely? It turns out that a very large number of us are. At least three million people, or around 6% of England’s adult population aged over 16, say they feel isolated “often or always”, according to government figures released last year. People between the ages of 16 and 24 are particularly vulnerable.
This is obviously bad news, both for our physical and mental health (and the two are closely linked). Loneliness is associated with a 26% increased risk of premature death and can damage our cardiovascular, immune and nervous systems. And when it comes to our emotional well-being, feeling lonely is a risk factor for several mental disorders, including schizophrenia and major depression. It also makes us more fearful and anxious.
Loneliness is now widely recognized as a major public health problem – one the government takes seriously enough to have appointed a loneliness minister in 2018. What is perhaps less well known is a response to the problem : the healing power of poetry to make us feel more connected to others.
Having been through two severe bouts of depression, I know firsthand how poetry can support our emotional well-being – an experience I wrote about in my memoir, black rainbowin 2014. Since then, I’ve been leading poetry workshops for mental health charities and prisons, and I’ve discovered the crucial sense of camaraderie that poetry can bring.
Poetry allows us to connect with others who have had similar experiences. We are not alone in our despair or our joy. When we have a poem by our side, whether it’s tucked away in a bag or on a bedside table, we feel like we’re accompanied by a friend: a literary arm is wrapped around our shoulders.
The workshops are held over four sessions. In each, we share poems that reflect the different “seasons” of our minds, from the winter of discontent to the spring of hope to the summer of joy, ending in more thoughtful poems with an autumnal feel.
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Yes, you can share your feelings with friends, or a therapist if you are lucky enough to have one. But for many people that may not be possible, especially not at 3am when we can feel most isolated. In their place, poems offer companionship and a reminder that someone else has gone through the same ups and downs as you.
During a workshop at my local hospital in west London, a woman read Derek Walcott’s poem ‘Love after love’. While reading, she began to cry. Finally, fighting back tears, she said, “I feel understood.” Everyone in the room knew what she meant.
She had, in Walcott’s phrase, struggled to “love the stranger who was yourself again.” The poet’s invitation to “Sit. Enjoy your life” was the nudge she needed, in language that spoke to her, to imagine herself loving herself in a way she had always found difficult. The poetry had worked its magic, releasing a sense of inner connection, and in turn a connection with all of us in the studio. To paraphrase the poet Paul Celan, a poem is like a handshake: it creates bonds between us. Or as F Scott Fitzgerald wrote of literature: “You discover that your desires are universal desires, that you are not alone and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
For many, the pandemic has exacerbated the sense of not belonging, as has the lack of access to mental health resources. More fortunately, however, it has also led to pockets of poetry sharing, whether online, in doctor’s offices, or in poetry workshops like mine.
Take the example of two Harvard students, David Haosen Xiang and Alisha Moon Yi, who wrote in the Journal of Medical Humanities in 2020 about their experience leading a series of virtual poetry workshops with local library systems in Cambridge and Las Vegas. Their goal was to help participants build “meaningful social relationships with each other.” The authors continued, “We consistently pointed out to participants the sense of belonging and community the workshops provided, and how encouraged they were to speak up and share their hopes and fears, worries and joys. , and to feel a real connection with others. , while learning and immersing themselves in poetry.
I’m not the only one who thinks this stuff works. What I am saying is not new either. The ancient Greeks believed in the links between poetry and healing: Apollo was the god of poetry and medicine. And there is plenty of newer research on the health benefits of reading, writing, and listening to poetry. A 2021 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that a group of 44 hospitalized children who were encouraged to read and write poetry experienced a reduction in fear, sadness, anger, worry and fatigue. Poetry was a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for introspection, the researchers concluded. American psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, known for his work on seasonal affective disorder, believes the poems help his patients and frequently prescribes them.
Poetry is of course not the only answer to loneliness and there is still a lot to be done to help isolated people. Yet he has much to recommend at a time when faith in the power of drugs to treat all mental health conditions is waning and non-clinical “social prescribing” is on the rise. Perhaps turning to poetry could turn out to be the most powerful mental health tool you’ve ever tried. When so many of us feel isolated, it might be worth going.
Rachel Kelly’s new book “You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs” is published by Yellow Kite on November 3
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