It's widely agreed that arts and creativity can boost mental health and wellbeing. But less well known is the positive effect that writing can have, says Christina Bunce.
James W Pennebaker pioneered the role of writing as a therapeutic tool in the mid 1980s finding that writing about personal experiences for as little as 15 minutes per day over three days improved both mental and physical health. His work has led to a thriving academic discipline of studying how and why writing can be therapeutic.
My interest in the positive effects of writing for health began when we started running online therapeutic writing courses alongside our other courses at the Professional Writing Academy (PWA). My colleague Susannah Marriott and I founded PWA 10 years ago having moved on from teaching an MA in writing we had developed at Falmouth University. Our eight-week therapeutic writing courses with pioneers in the field - Victoria Field and Anne Taylor - are very popular with writers and healthcare professionals.
But as the pandemic kicked off we wondered how we could make the benefits of writing more widely accessible. Once it became established, it really concentrated our thoughts on how that need was more acute and more urgent. That’s when the idea of WriteWell, an innovative online community writing for health, was born.
Interventions in mental health
Over the last decade there has been increasing recognition of the scale of anxiety and depression in the population. More than a quarter of adults have been diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their life. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased isolation, stress and further challenged mental health.
Like many, I have lived with periods of depression since I was a teenager and also like many I have spent a long time searching for ways to manage it. There are certainly more options and openness now, but as everyone is different, so are their ways of learning to live with it.
I believe in the idea of a toolbox of interventions – from exercise to therapy to meditation and yoga – including creativity. The case for creativity being included in the toolbox has been building exponentially. So offering an accessible writing for wellness resource seemed something we could do to really make a difference to many people’s lives.
A community open to all
Gradually the vision of WriteWell Community crystallised. We wanted it to be a new kind of learning experience which worked for an audience regardless of age, gender, education, location, background or writing experience. We also wanted it to be affordable. We wanted it to be something that people could easily engage with to promote wellbeing and as a preventive tool.
WriteWell uses tools based on therapeutic, reflective and creative writing techniques which are proven to benefit wellbeing. These include creative prompts, short exercises and longer courses in small groups on topic areas such as building resilience and creating calm. There is a library of resources, live workshops, and reading and writing groups. We have ensured that the activities are stimulating, encouraging and also fun.
Launched in February 2021, WriteWell has three aspects which we think make it unique and it is the mix which makes us very excited about the possibilities that it offers for mental health and wellbeing. These three aspects are creative writing, learning and community. Each of these have their part to play.
Evidence of wide-ranging benefits
Since Pennebaker’s ground-breaking study, there have been more than 300 studies of the effects of writing on health. A range of benefits have been identified including fewer stress-related visits to the doctor, reduced absenteeism from work, reducing stress and an improvement in conditions such as migraine and sleep apnoea. Students who took part in expressive writing were found to do better in exams and expressive writing by healthcare workers to mitigate the psychological distress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
WriteWell offers the opportunity to learn and develop a new skill. The Community Learning Mental Health research project found that more than half of adults with clinically significant anxiety and/or depression taking part in community learning courses had no symptoms at the end of their course. With similar efficacy to NHS frontline talking therapies and at relatively low cost, writing for health offers promise and scope as a future public health intervention.
Writing may help in many different ways including releasing negative feelings, articulating and making sense of past experiences, breaking a cycle of negative thoughts and triggering positive emotions through creativity. It can also be a useful maintenance tool, neuroscientists can explain that creativity can actually change the way our brains work.
WriteWell Community has community in its title because this element is important. Online classrooms bring together small groups giving the opportunity to share work and experiences in a safe and supportive community managed by a moderator. Being part of a group can help people in many ways. It diminishes feelings of loneliness and isolation, it builds confidence and having a common purpose is reassuring.
Reducing financial barriers
We have ensured that WriteWell provides a low-cost option with a wealth of activities and materials on an online platform and at a low cost available to all. To celebrate our launch we offered free places to hundreds of key workers to recognise their amazing work and the extreme stress they have been under. Currently we have 400 users on the platform and it is growing every day.
We have also have subscribers at a low cost of £9 per month. This gives access to all the activities including all the courses and the live speaker events with experts and inspirers in the field. And we have been working with a range of different organisations to set up group subscriptions at a reduced cost per individual. Currently organisations including hospital trusts and social enterprises are trialling the platform as a precursor to taking out a group subscription.
Three months down the line we have carried out a short evaluation survey with our users and found that 90% can see that creativity and writing are useful tools to support wellbeing and three quarters found that the activities helped them to take a break and switch off from the world.
We are passionate and excited about WriteWell Community and taking this journey to see how it will grow and develop.
Christina Bunce is Director of Professional Writing Academy and WriteWell Community.
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