Poetry and Mental Health: How Reading Poetry Helps My Depression

For the last several weeks, I’ve been in a serious reading slump. It started the way it usually does–I began losing interest in the book I was reading so I put it down. After that, nothing really held my interest either. When my copy of The Witch Doesn’t Burn in this One by Amanda Lovelace came in for me at my local indie bookstore, I picked it up and stopped at a cafe to crack it open. As it happens, poetry is just what I needed.

Poetry and Mental Health

Sometimes reading slumps happen for no apparent reason. But a lot of the time for me, they coincide with bouts of depression. This isn’t totally surprising because a textbook symptom of depression is losing interest in things you usually enjoy. The whole not reading thing also exacerbates this for me because when I’m not reading, I don’t have my usual means of escape or self care.

Reading a collection of poetry is very different from reading your typical book for lots of reasons. But most especially, it’s a completely different reading experience. For me, reading poetry isn’t immersive in the same way; when I’m reading a poem, I don’t escape, but rather face my feelings head on. It helps me connect with my emotional self.

Some might find this counter-intuitive because often those feelings are sad. And yes, sometimes when I’m reading poetry, it enables wallowing. But honestly, to move through certain stages and emotions, you have to fully feel them first.

A lot of the time when I think of poetry or poets, there are two types that come to mind. You have your Victorians and Romantics with highbrow academics analyzing them to death, and you have your angsty depressives.

I studied English in university, and that of course involved some poetry. While I did enjoy studying some of those poets–Rossetti, Dickinson, Wordsworth, etc–they are not the ones that I turn to. I turn to contemporary poets because they speak to me in a simple, accessible, yet still beautiful way.

When I mentioned my poetry reading to one of my friends, he said that he hasn’t been reading poetry lately because he’s not feeling depressed enough for it. And I guess that says something about one of the reasons people read poetry–a kind of catharsis. It brings your emotions to the forefront because the poet is saying something you feel in words you couldn’t find on your own.

And while I don’t think poetry reading is something that should be confined to times of sadness, I do think it really can help. It makes me feel less alone and like my feelings are valid. Sometimes when you’re in what feels like an abyss, just knowing that others have and do feel that way too is invaluable. It also helps you process what’s happening and how you feel. Sometimes it makes me sad, but ultimately it pushes me forward and gives me hope.

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Beth is the founder and editor of Fuelled by Fiction. She is a twenty-something east coast Canadian girl who loves writing about books and feminism.