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Improving mental health through creativity

If you’re someone who struggles with anxiety and low self-esteem, having a group of writers – including published authors, popular poets and writers with PhDs – going through one of your incredibly personal short stories in fine detail can be nerve-wracking. For me, it became less nerve-wracking when I magically transformed my mental illnesses into a miserable donkey and a neurotic pig.

After eight years of working a series of full-time office jobs, I made the decision to go back to university to pursue a MA in Creative Writing. Through learning to write fiction – particularly short stories and poetry – I have been able to cope much better with my mental health challenges. For one of the first short stories I wrote to share with the class, I decided to write about my experiences of a particularly vicious bout of work-related anxiety. I described the physical feelings I would experience during moments of stress – alluding to increased heart rate, headaches and hot flashes. Inspired by Winnie the Pooh and the talking animals of Haruki Murakami, I put the negative, sometimes contradictory thoughts that would rush through my head into the mouths of imaginary cuddly toy animals – making them simultaneously troubling and comical.

‘Chrissie exhaled slowly and put her head in her hands. It was happening again. The very small animals were demanding her attention.

“Chrissie, look, an email!” Pig cried. “It’s from him!”

“What is it now?” sighed Donkey.

“I knew he looked at you funny this morning Chrissie! I’m so scared!” Pig covered his face with his little trotters. “Is it about what you said to Nigel at the end of that meeting yesterday? Oh Chrissie, I really hope they don’t get rid of you!”

“Piggy, don’t be such a drama queen! You’re worrying me! Why would they get rid of me?” Chrissie said, rubbing her temples.’

As a person living with depression or anxiety – particularly the double-trouble, gruesome twosome of both at the same time – it’s easy to feel powerless. As a fiction writer, you have all the power. You can create and destroy worlds with the flourish of a pen, or the click of a few keys. Your mental illness can be a story in itself, a hero or a villain. Obsess over it, or ignore it. Lock it in a closet. Hide it under your bed. Punch it, kick it, bite it. Make it a ghost, an angel, a zombie. Move it to the past, or the future. Make it speak gibberish, or make it speak your eternal truth. Make yourself a soldier, a warrior, a mother of dragons.

In addition to my studies, at the end of last year I worked part-time for a non-profit photography exhibition, Stories of the Streets, which displays images taken by homeless people. Through working with this project, I have become even more convinced of the power of improving your mental health through creativity. I have seen how much our homeless photographers have benefited through creating art and sharing it with others – leading to a huge increase in self-esteem, and a decrease in the feeling of worthlessness and invisibility.

If you’re going through a mental health crisis right now, why not pick up a pencil, pen or a camera? If you’re not sure where to start, there are plenty of great journals available which are full of prompts to get your creative juices flowing. You don’t have to share your art with anyone if you don’t want to, although you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by the wonderful response you get.

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