As many know, I’ve done a lot of work with mental health groups over the years. This week I’m preparing for a meeting to discuss setting up a reading group in a hospital in Fife, and next week I’m starting a series of three workshops in the State Hospital at Carstairs. I’ve been going there for seven years now, and the patients I meet there are at the more serious end of the mental health spectrum. I’ve worked a lot in community drop-in centres too, where folk are coping with a variety of different issues, from those with learning difficulties to those with social and behavioural problems in their lives.
My aims are always to raise an interest in poetry, and to have individuals respond to it. Unless I’m working to a specific purpose, or on a definite theme, I usually start with an exploration of different poetic types and subjects, so I can see how people react to the words. I’ll try descriptive poems, emotional poems, humorous poems, thoughtful poems and many others. First I read them aloud, and then I try to start discussions going. “What did you like about that one?” or “What’s happening in that one?” There’s no shortage of good anthologies to choose from, and I generally take Staying Alive, The Rattle-Bag, and The Edinburgh Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry. (Scottish poety is usually popular). Discussions tend to widen out, as participants interact with each other, as well as myself. Communication is crucial, so I naturally prefer to read poets who are good at it, rather than the ones for whom it isn’t a priority.
In some groups they want to write poetry, and in these situations it’s often best to go for group poems, so that I can be as inclusive as possible. Encouragement can usually overcome shyness, and it’s lovely to see their reactions to their achievements. But even if some can’t think of a line or a verse, I try to find out what they’re thinking, so I can help them to express their thoughts. Where I’ve built up a longer term relationship with a group, such as at Carstairs, I’ll talk about my own writing, and then we can explore together what makes us all want to use words creatively.
Is it therapeutic? I’m not in a position to answer that, but if they enjoy the experience and get something out of poetry, that’s enough for me.