Teachers have always known that the benefits of reading and writing are myriad and innumerable. What we know about what literacy does for the brain, the body, and for learning is always growing. And now we know that journal writing, reading, and specifically poetry reading & writing are all beneficial for students (of all ages) with mental illness. And since an average of 3 students in each classroom are likely to suffer from mental illness of some type, this is key information for all educators.
Here are three specific strategies for using literature and writing to help students with mental illness:
1. Journal Writing
Even beyond the benefits of responding to literature or recording questions, journal writing in the classroom helps students with mental illness. It does this by managing anxiety, promoting stress-relief, and curbing depression symptoms. It also encourages students to name and describe emotions and reactions, which is a critical component to mental health.
Consider establishing some sort of system by which students can journal freely each day. Do you have a few extra minutes? Do you want students to dwell on a specific concept a bit? Are you noticing distractions, disengagement? Allow students to earn participation points (or whatever the equivalent is for your classroom setting) for writing during a set time, even if you do not read what they have written.
I would encourage teachers to continuously encourage students that they can always leave a note (or journal entry) for you, another staff member, or the school psychologist at any time. Continuous reminders about this invitation are important.
During a particlarly difficult time in my childhood, I used books as an escape. I would read under my desk, in my bedroom, in a tree, anywhere to be alone (or alone with my thoughts) and mentally check out of reality and into a fictional escape. That year alone I logged something like 500 Accelerated Reader points. It was a very effective coping strategy, and I know I'm not the only one who has benefitted from such treatment.
It turns out that science bears this out. The Reading Agency in the UK looked at 51 studies done over 10 years and examined their results:
"Benefits include increased empathy, better relationships with others,
reduced symptoms of depression and risks of dementia and improved well-being throughout life."
Here's another exceptional idea. Teach your students about mental health using literature designed to do so. These books humanize the mental health struggles by telling the relatable stories aimed at whichever age group your students are in:
- The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner: Ages 8-12- deals with addiction in family members, positive thinking, managing in crisis mode
- My Demon's Name is Ed by Danah Khalil: Ages 12-16- deals with anorexia, depression, self-esteem, hope, mental health
- Visiting Feelings by Lauren Rubenstein PhD: Ages 4-8- deals with mindfullness, managing feelings, expression, self-awareness
- Nobody's Perfect by Ellen Flanagan Burns: Ages 8 & up- deals with perfectionism, making mistakes, doing your best
- I Can't Stop by Holly Niner: Ages 4-8- deals with Tourette's Syndrome, tics, bullying, friendship, understanding
- Mr. Worry by Holly Niner: Ages 5-10- deals with OCD, bullying, friendship, understanding
There's something specific about writing & reading poetry that cracks open emotion & allows healing. As William Butler Yeates said, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry."
The National Association for Poetry Therapy cites that as far back as ancient Greece and earlier, in chants by shamans, poetry has been theraputic. Tap into this magic. Provide students with poetry to read and formulas & structures to experiment with. Students struggling to get the words flowing may feel less intimitated by haiku, or something more structured like a sonnet. Alternatively, they may prefer the freedom of a lyrical style, a rap song, or simply stream of consciousness flow.
No matter what you do, remember that these three methods can support your students with mental illness in special and notable ways. Where have you seen breakthroughs for your students?