Reading, writing and mental health – essentials from the School of English

Sam Wood
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Can studying English benefit understandings of mental health?

There has never been a better time to explore the ways in which literary and cultural texts represent mental wellbeing. This being Mental Health Awareness Week, Dr Eleanor Perry, Lecturer in Creative Writing (Poetry) in the School of English, takes this opportunity to share how English modules can provide vital insight for understanding this topic. She said:

‘Kent’s School of English hosts a second-year module Perceptions, Pathologies, and Disorders: Reading and Writing Mental Health, which is a chance for students to explore understandings of mental health in depth.

‘In Perceptions, Pathologies, and Disorders, students have the opportunity to examine a range of memoirs, essays, poetry, film, television, and images, including works by writers such as Janet Frame, Claudia Rankine, and Sam Sax. An understanding of this is then furthered by studying a variety of themes through which mental health and mental illness have been represented.

‘The module is taught through a combination of creative and critical approaches, giving students the opportunity to develop the skills required to discuss issues of mental health and mental illness critically, and to reflect on these issues creatively through writing prose, poetry or a critical essay

‘The module is just one example of the School of English’s commitment to writing and mental health, with a series of student-focused workshops, originally developed in 2019, on the theme of Writing Minds.

Writing Minds is aimed at students who experienced barriers to participation linked with mental health, enabling students to explore and articulate their identity in an empowering and non-prescriptive way. The workshop activities covered a range of different approaches, including zine-making, collage, scrap-booking, textual mandalas, creative embroidery, basic print-making, sound recording, and performance.

‘During the first lockdown of 2020, the workshops became a virtual space in which students, university applicants, alumni, and aspiring writers could participate through a series of creative writing prompts centred on mental wellbeing. You can find out more about Writing Minds, and try out some of the writing prompts yourself, by visiting the project’s website.

‘Mental health is also a frequent key theme in my own creative work. My recent poetry collection, Unspeakable Patterns of the House (Saló Press, 2020), was a sequence of poems exploring mental health, abstraction, inarticulation, and the uncanny spatial syntaxes of the household.

‘Reading, writing and mental health are key concepts within the School of English. However, this all takes second place to the priority of discussion. Discussion of improving environments, for both study and working; discussion of generating greater attention to such key issues as mental health; and discussing how we are feeling and creating a space for that conversation and expression.’