As fellow sufferers of depression, anxiety, or eating disorders will know, mental illness is not something that can be magicked away. Medication, light exercise, and healthy eating are not guarantors of feeling better.
One thing that has helped me, though, is creative writing. I’ve been typing away at a novel for a long time now, and I’ve definitely noticed its therapeutic benefits.
Here are four reasons why I think creative writing can be a helpful coping mechanism when dealing with mental illness…
Fictionalising your mental illness
You don’t have to write a story about a character dealing with mental illness. You can write whatever you want – that’s the beauty of creative writing.
But I’ve found that writing indirectly about my mental illness is a means of expressing what I’m feeling in a healthy, productive way.
For example, I like to construct characters based loosely on my mental illness. I wake up each day unsure of what I will be feeling. In a sense, I feel as if I have many different characteristics. Some are depressive, some are manic, some are more optimistic. Channelling these characteristics into different characters has allowed me to confront the behaviours that my mental illness leads me to. Basing the experiences of my characters on my own experiences has also allowed me to come to terms with what I have lived through and how it impacts my life today.
On a literary level, this might help improve your writing, as your characters are more believable.
Reading is often hailed for its escapist potential: books allow readers to travel to different worlds.
With creative writing, you can create your own, person world; somewhere to escape to when things are overwhelming. No one else can tell you what to write. You are at liberty when writing creatively, meaning you are in charge of constructing a place of escape. Of course, you don’t want to get caught up in a fantasy world, and it’s important that you address your real-life problems. But writing is there to give you comfort, should you need it, in darker periods.
Commitment is whatever you choose it to be
Creative writing is for your own enjoyment. As such, there is no pressure on you to make ‘progress’ on your story. Treat it as just a hobby.
You can sit down for hours at a time to write, or you can add the occasional sentence to a story using the notes application on your phone. It is purely up to you. The loose commitment is useful for dealing with mental health issues because you don’t know what life will throw at you – there might be times when you put down a story for weeks at a time. Or, you might disregard something that you’ve been working on for months entirely.
There’s no pressure. Writing fiction is very flexible, meaning you can work your hobby around the unpredictability of dealing with a mental health condition. Writing is for leisure – it is not something to be stressed about!
It’s nice to feel proud of yourself. I write incredibly slowly. I have written about five pages of my novel so far – and it’s taken me at least a year to get to this point because I keep deleting things, getting distracted, and giving up for long periods of time. No worries.
When I do get some writing done, even if it’s just a sentence, I feel proud of myself. I might not have got much of my University work done, or tidied the house, or perhaps I didn’t even get out of bed – but if I think of an idea for my story, I feel like I have made an achievement in my day.
I hope this list, short though it is, encourages you to give creative writing a go. It may not help everyone, but it can be a brilliant way of dealing with your mental health.
This article by Matt Haig,for example, shows just how life-saving writing can be for someone.