Anyone feeling lonely? An awful lot of us are, it turns out. At least three million people, or around 6 per cent of the adult population in England aged over 16, say they feel isolated “often or always”, according to government figures published last year. Those aged between 16 and 24 are especially vulnerable.
This is obviously bad news, for both our physical and mental health (and the two are closely linked). Loneliness is associated with a 26 per cent increase in the risk of premature mortality and can damage our cardiovascular, immune and nervous systems. And when it comes to our emotional well-being, feeling lonely is a risk factor for several mental disorders, including schizophrenia and major depression. It also makes us more fearful and anxious.
Loneliness is now widely recognised as a major public health problem – one the government takes sufficiently seriously to have appointed a minister for loneliness in 2018. What is perhaps less well-known is one answer to the problem: the healing power of poetry to make us feel more connected to others.
Having been through two serious episodes of depression, I know first-hand how poetry can support our emotional well-being – an experience I wrote about in my memoir, Black Rainbow, in 2014. Since then, I’ve been running poetry workshops for mental health charities and prisons, and have discovered the crucial feeling of companionship that poetry can bring.
Poetry lets us connect with other people who have had similar experiences. We’re not alone in our despair or delight. When we have a poem by our side, whether tucked into a bag or on a bedside table, it feels like we’re being accompanied by a friend: a literary arm is wrapped around our shoulders.
The workshops take place across four sessions. In each, we share poems that reflect the different “seasons” of our mind, from the winter of discontent to the spring of hope to the summer of joy, ending with more reflective poems with an autumnal feel.
Yes, you can share your feelings with friends, or a therapist if you’re lucky enough to have one. But for many people that may not be possible, especially not at 3am, when we can feel at our most isolated. In their place, poems offer companionship, and a reminder that someone else has been through the same ups and downs as you.
During a workshop at my local hospital in west London, one woman read Derek Walcott’s poem “Love after Love”. As she read, she started to cry. Eventually, fighting through tears, she said, “I feel understood.” Everyone in the room knew just what she meant.
She had, in Walcott’s phrase, struggled to “love again the stranger who was yourself”. The poet’s invitation to “Sit. Feast on your life” was the nudge she needed, in language that spoke to her, to imagine loving herself in a way she had always found hard. Poetry had worked its magic, unlocking a feeling of inner connection, and in turn a connection to all of us in the workshop. To paraphrase the poet Paul Celan, a poem is like a handshake: it creates bonds between us. Or as F Scott Fitzgerald wrote of literature: “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
For many, the pandemic exacerbated feelings of not belonging, as did the lack of access to mental health resources. More happily, however, it also led to pockets of poetry-sharing, whether online, in doctors’ surgeries, or in poetry workshops like mine.
Take the example of two Harvard students, David Haosen Xiang and Alisha Moon Yi, who wrote in the Journal of Medical Humanities in 2020 about their experience leading a series of virtual poetry workshops with local library systems in Cambridge and Las Vegas. Their aim was to help participants form “meaningful social relationships with each other”. The authors continued: “We consistently had participants remark on the sense of belonging and community that the workshops provided, and how encouraged they were to speak and share their hopes and fears, their worries, and joys, and to feel a real connection to others, while learning and immersing themselves in poetry.”
I am not alone in thinking this stuff works. Nor is what I’m saying new. The ancient Greeks believed in the links between poetry and healing: Apollo was the god of poetry and of medicine. And there is plenty of more recent research about the health benefits of reading, writing and listening to poetry. A 2021 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that a group of 44 hospitalised children who were encouraged to read and write poetry experienced reductions in fear, sadness, anger, worry and fatigue. Poetry was a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for self-reflection, the researchers concluded. The American psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, known for his work on seasonal affective disorder, believes that poems help his patients, and frequently prescribes them.
Poetry is, of course, not the only answer to loneliness, and far more needs to be done to help isolated people. Still, it has much to recommend at a time when faith is waning in the power of medication to address all mental health problems and non-clinical “social prescribing” is on the rise. Just possibly, turning to poetry might prove the most effective mental health tool you’ve never tried. When so many of us feel isolated, it could be worth a go.
Rachel Kelly’s new book “You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs” is published by Yellow Kite on 3 November
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?