Friday 8 November 2013, 08:31 | By

Words for wellbeing

CSL Invites

Have you ever thrown yourself into something and then, just when it’s too late to draw back, you panic? That’s how I felt when I started a weekly writing group for patients in a mental health unit.

Carol Ross

I was motivated to start the sessions by my own personal experience of the enjoyment and therapy that writing can bring, and by the large amount of research evidence I’d read showing that writing can be of therapeutic benefit – both psychologically and physically.

But I was nervous – would I enjoy the sessions or hate them? Did I have the right skills? Would the patients see the benefits? Fortunately the answers to those questions were: yes I loved doing the sessions from the beginning; yes I had prepared enough beforehand so that my skills were up to the job (but I am still learning all the time); and yes, patients do tell me that they benefit from the sessions.

At the time of writing I’m leading weekly groups in two mental health wards and a psychiatric intensive care unit, as well as a monthly group. In my writing sessions I don’t feel like a therapist or a teacher (I am neither) – I just sit down with some people, we get to know each other a little, and we write together. I believe that writing does you good, whatever you write, but that different people need to write different things and in different styles, for example: thoughts and feelings, memories, imaginative stories, poems. What I aim to do is help people discover what they need (or want) to express and inspire them to keep writing – and what’s more, they inspire me too!

Freewriting is a powerful technique that can draw out unexpected thoughts and feelings. When working in a mental health unit I feel it’s helpful to use prompts for Freewriting, such as sets of words: pool, moon, sky, cloud; or snow, cave, mountain, river; or red, blue, green, yellow. Freewriting is just one of the techniques I use; others include writing about pictures of stunning landscapes, and photographs of people. For example, writing a detailed description of a beautiful or interesting place, from life or from a postcard, is calming when someone is feeling anxious or distressed. It’s a sort of writing meditation.

Sometimes a patient has something going on in their life that I can see would be a good thing for them to write about. For example, I suggested to one patient she write a letter from her future self (a time when she is well) to her small grandson to tell him how much he inspired her to get well. Her daughter has put the letter away in a box until the little boy is old enough to read it.

Another woman told me part way through a writing session that her mother had sadly just died, and that she’d been unable to get out of the psychiatric ward to say goodbye. She mentioned that she had happy memories of her mother, so I abandoned the writing exercise I’d planned and suggested instead that she write about one of her happy memories. She said afterwards how surprised she was that she hadn’t cried when writing the memory about her mother and that she’d found the exercise a great comfort.

Writing about painful thoughts and feelings can sometimes be helpful to achieve clarity or catharsis. But it’s important not to write down your negative thoughts. And please believe me – writing does not have to hurt to do you good. Writing about happy memories, imaginative stories and poems is good for your wellbeing. Write whatever you want to write, and why not try to do it a little every day?

I’ve edited/co-authored and published a not-for-profit book, Words for Wellbeing, to encourage people to write for their general health. It’s an uplifting read and packed with writing ideas and personal stories. You can read several chapters of Words for Wellbeing, including the story of the Year of Writing, here.

Best wishes and get writing!

Carol Ross is Lead Writing Practitioner from Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.