Teaching creative writing in hospital
Blog post written by Horatio Clare.
I have been working with staff and patients – known as ‘service users’ – on a secure ward in a psychiatric hospital in Wakefield in order to identify and develop ways in which creative writing may be used to aid recovery from mental breakdown. Although therapeutic creative writing is an expanding field, its use in acute care has not been much explored. There are significant challenges: service users have varying degrees of literacy, from almost none to postgraduate level. They are subject to various sanctions under the Mental Health Act: most are on Section 2: involuntary detention for up to 28 days. They are in various stages of recovery from extreme trauma. Stress and medication may make it difficult for them to participate as they would wish. Their self-confidence is often very low. A member of staff must be present at all times.
However, over the course of regular classes across three months, we made tremendous progress. The most obvious identified need is that the patients have no or very limited access to talk therapy – and this is what they most need and want to do, to talk. The diary form gave us a place to start, and non-fiction reportage had some success, but what really worked was poetry. We used Larkin, Hughes, Heaney, Betjeman, Nash, Plath, Lawrence and others to spark conversations about family, feelings, memory, fears and hopes. It was extraordinarily moving to help these men (it is a male ward) to lower their guards and talk about their inner lives. The classes became an important part of their weeks on the ward. What we achieved was not exactly measurable, but it was tangible. Two regular attendees have since been discharged and returned to the community. They and the staff said the classes had helped them. (Staff members join in, on equal terms with their patients, which makes a notable difference: we are all equals.)
My ambition is to create a kind of tool kit which will assist other writers to undertake these kinds of sessions with confidence. Detentions under the mental health act are rising; there are staff and funding shortages; regular access to talk therapy for inpatients is not coming any time soon. But we do have a large and growing pool of writers with experience of teaching to all sorts of levels: adults, children, prisoners, disadvantaged groups, etc. There is no mental health ward in the country that would not benefit from creative writing classes. There is an opportunity here to make a real difference to hundreds – and when you count relatives and partners, thousands – of lives. Activity Feedback: Staff reported that participants really enjoyed the sessions. Participants were keen on feedback, and began doing their own work in their own time. They looked forward to the sessions and prized them.
Internal Partner(s): Centre for New Writing / SALC
External Partner(s): South West Yorkshire NHS Partnership Foundation Trust
Funding source(s): Voluntary – CNW / SALC have indicated funds are available for development
Project duration: Jan 2019 – March 2019 (on hold/ongoing)
Project lead(s): Horatio Clare, Lecturer (nonfiction) Centre for New Writing, Dept of English, American Studies and Creative Writing