The Fragility of Being Human and the Power of Poetry to Mend

blue word cloud composed of poet names and recurring words

The Power of Poetry

In a recent BBC2 documentary on W. H. Auden and ‘The Age of Anxiety’, Poet Paul Muldoon reflected that Auden’s work reveals the ‘fragility’ of human societies, indeed of what we think of as ‘civilisation’. It was this insight that struck me as one of the reasons for the intensely therapeutic nature of poetry, both reading and writing it. For if poetry and poets help us understand the human condition and our own experience in the world, or as Muldoon has it, in the ‘moments’ in which we find ourselves, then it can help us to fully engage with the world, with our lives and with our authentic selves.

To do this, I am convinced we need to work with all shades of existence, including, as Jung maintained, the realm of shadow. For again it was Jung’s contention that denial of the shadow gives it tremendous destructive power, acted out in political contexts in the guise of oppressive ideologies and mass violence. And Auden saw this too in the mesmerism of crowds by the rise of fascist tyrants during the 1930s,

‘And the poetry he invented was easy to understand; / He knew human folly like the back of his hand,’

 

Louis MacNeice, another poet who arose during the thirties, also imbued significant chunks of his work with a sense of human mortality and the weariness of war, yet with a balancing opposite that revelled in human connection and in moments of ‘Sunlight on the Garden’.

Even in child development we can see reflections of the poet’s worlds of fear and destruction, opposed and challenged by growth, light and creativity. Melanie Klein constructed her whole model of child development around ideas that every human child goes through a period of depression and alienation, which must be negotiated successfully in order to grow into a balanced, happy, functional adult. How is this trial surmounted? By being steeped in an environment full of opportunities to channel feelings and fears and to use creative energies to construct and express the self. This also requires being surrounded by emotionally healthy, loving carers who can become positive, constructive internalised role models. A fragile existence and perilous journey, indeed, for if these conditions are not met at least in some measure, all sorts of distorted relationships and ideas may develop, allowing for powerful defensive, negative shadow material to fester into self-destructive or outwardly violent actions.

Auden understood this dynamic and pointed it out, not I believe to be a doom warrior, but to show the way out of the cycle of destruction, through understanding and validating other humans and their experience, and by addressing our needs for safety, belonging and expressive outlets. In September 1, 1939 he writes,

‘I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.’

 

As Muldoon and other commentators in the documentary explained, the individual experience is inextricably linked to the contexts in which it emerges, and these contexts are multi-layered: time, history, place, biological, social, political, cultural. Poetry as a therapeutic resource must surely be more widely acknowledged and funded. For my own part, I find poetry encouraging and validating, which is why I seem to be on a bit of a bender of late, catching up with some of the classics like Auden and MacNeice as well as more modern poets like C. K. Williams and Paul Muldoon. Here are a few links to sites I’ve come across recently. I hope you find them as uplifting and exciting as I do.

The Interesting Literature blog

The Poetry Foundation

And the word art motif above was created free on wordart.com 

Creative Mental Health: Ireland

    Creative Mental Health Author Roberta McDonnell, information card for proposed network, Creative Mental Health Ireland.

Something of a paradigm shift is underway in the mental health field, as I discussed in a recent post  about new thinking in psychiatry. Though not a psychiatrist, I have many years of experience as a mental health nurse and health researcher, some of which were spent with people suffering in acute wards, at other times alongside those struggling to invoke recovery in a community setting. These experiences, along with many other studies, can be read about in my current publication Creativity and Social Support in Mental Health: Service Users’ Perspectives (Palgrave 2014). Without exception I observed honest, courageous people using many creative means to rebuild their lives and a strengthened sense of self, finding to my amazement and delight that many other researchers and service user activists were describing similar findings and experiences. It was, then, with further excitement, that I came across the work of Professor Ivor Browne in Dublin and beyond.

Professor Ivor Browne

In Music and Madness, we get a tremendous insight and an engaging story of how life experiences, in combination with with a very creative and fearless thinker, brought the somewhat maverick but highly effective psychiatrist to carry out the extensive work of support, reform and community development that he has accomplished in Ireland and beyond, a legacy which is still vibrant and still very much in the making. As a citizen-wide mode of mental health promotion, community development is essential and shifts our thinking away from a culture of individualised pathology and into a sense of the relational nature of humans – we make each other and we make ourselves, it’s a dynamic, two-way process. I am planning future posts that will be based on interviews with people involved in community arts, mental health promotion and recovery support. In the meantime,  enjoy Professor Browne’s work through his books and some interesting programmes from RTE on the history of mental health care and treatment.

 

image of book cover

Music and Madness by Professor Ivor Browne

How we can improve the mental wellbeing of young people

Anj Handa at Anj Handa Associates writes about the need to improve on the mental wellbeing of young people. I couldn’t agree more and would add a few points: I worry though that society is focusing too much on diagnosing and medicating young people and not enough on dealing with the social conditions that could have an impact on growing the positive mental health of citizens. Very interested in positive mental health promotion, especially for young people and I believe it to be bound up with strong self-esteem and a vibrant society full of opportunities for people of all abilities.

Anj Handa

Image

A shocking report published recently by The Prince’s Trust revealed that one in five young people is suffering from mental health issues. Tragically, it also highlighted that long-term unemployed 16 to 25-year-olds are twice as likely as their peers to have be on anti-depressants and believe they have nothing to live for. This number equates to around three quarters of young people.

Now, leading Mental Health charities, such as Rethink Mental Illness, the Mental Health Foundation and Sane have joined the debate, saying that not enough is being done on mental health for young people and that lives are being put at risk. They have called for more training for teachers and GPs and for awareness to be raised among parents and teenagers to be able to spot the signs.

Personally, I feel that awareness-raising is crucial, but that we also need to equip young people with the tools to…

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Creative Mental Health: Soul Spelunker: Thoughts On Heideggers Being And Time

Creative Mental Health: Soul Spelunker: Thoughts On Heideggers Being And Time.

This post from Mark Dotson’s Depth Psychology blog Soul Spelunker was reblogged on my own blogger site a few months ago, as I found it helpful in my attempts to understand existential and phenomenological psychology (I don’t pretend to have totally grasped it even yet, but I think I’m moving in the right direction!).

Lived experience is a concept gaining ground in mental health research. It is, however, not easy to define. In the post linked above, I found some helpful explanations of Hegel and  Heidegger’s vision of ‘being’ in terms of organic and developmental processes. Rather than the dominant approach of subject/object division, the concept of Dasein reflects a more holistic state of being in the world. From this theoretical stance it is then possible to discuss lived experience as an investigable phenomenon and so drive forward a more humanistic approach to research, evaluation, practice and policy.

Other authors whose work on ‘meaning making’ added to this repertoire included Rollo May,

Creative Mental Health: Soul Spelunker: Thoughts On Heideggers Being And Time

Eric Maisel,

Creative Mental Health: Soul Spelunker: Thoughts On Heideggers Being And Time

and Arthur Kleinman.

Creative Mental Health: Soul Spelunker: Thoughts On Heideggers Being And Time

My motivation for this search for understanding comes from my background in qualitative research and mental health. The concepts of ‘lived experience’, ‘ways of being’ and ‘phenomenology’ or ‘worldview’ were already firmly planted in my mind from anthropology and ethnography. The fact that humans ‘make meaning’ and form cultural matrices within which to affirm and manifest our existence had also taken root, mainly during the interpretive analysis of my fieldwork and other research material.

Most recently I have discovered the work of Mick Bramham in existential phenomenological psychotherapy, work which has really cranked up my understanding of these concepts by at least ten gears. I do encourage anyone interested to visit that site and to look as well at the work of Rollo May and Eric Maisel.

For any researchers seeking a theoretical and methodological approach that focuses on lived experience and making meaning, I recommend beginning with anthropology and in particular with Arthur Kleinman’s The Illness Narratives.

Happy Reading 🙂

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