A group member turned Reader Leader Volunteer shares her powerful story and tells us what Shared Reading has meant for her.
The link between the arts and improved mental well-being is one which more professionals and volunteers are experiencing firsthand in the UK, and will be celebrated at the first national Arts in Health Conference and Showcase.
It’s great news to hear that the connection between poetry and mental wellbeing is being highlighted, thanks to the launch of ReLit and their anthology Stressed Unstressed, a volume of 150 poems selected to ease the mind and provide solace in troubling situations. Amongst those who have identified poems that have helped them to cope during times of stress are Melvyn Bragg, Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry.
The members of our Shared Reading groups are experiencing the power as well as the pleasure of poetry on a weekly basis, from community groups in libraries to patients on mental health wards and prisoners in high-security units. Reading poetry aloud as a group gives people access to powerful language, thoughts and feelings about what it is to be human, and in experiencing these complex meanings with others they can start to build – or rebuild – a better understanding of themselves and the world. Whichever way someone is struggling – on a particular day, week or on a longer-term basis – a poem can help to reach out on a personal, emotional level.
The best way to feel what a poem is and can do is to read it, with other people.
Take, for instance, the women at HMP Low Newton who read Mattresses by Jean Sprackland:
“Mattresses talks about everyone’s life but has a darkness that resonates with the women reading here. On the first reading one woman can’t hear the mattress but only a tale of a broken woman, lost and discarded. The others listen politely, sensitively, but then the group move on, back to the text, and the talk returns to mattresses, how they are an ‘archive’ of the everyday and everybody. The same woman’s expression changes to one of surprise: the idea that there could be other things to the poem, any poem, than what struck her at first reading is a genuinely new one. Another, deeper, insight follows: “I saw me”. What had been evident to everyone else in the room startles this woman to a laugh, and you can see her visibly awaken to new insights about herself and the potential of poetry.”
Or a group member on a mental health ward in Manchester, who found comfort in I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by Wordsworth:
“On the morning of the group, he was on a 2:1 because he was ‘punching out and shouting at the staff’. He came in to the group, sat down and his focus was completely on the poem throughout. He was calm, reflective, and had read the whole of the poem aloud in a wonderfully clear voice. We were talking about places that we can remember that made us happy, and he told the story of going on picnics with his Mum, Dad and sister. By the end of the group, he only had one staff member with him, and showed no signs of aggression, upset, or distress.”
A great amount of the literature we use in Shared Reading groups deals with difficult subjects, evoking distress and often painful memories that do not seem on the surface designed to comfort or put the group member’s mind at ease. However below the surface different emotions rise up, showing how we sometimes need what is difficult to break through to the deeper part of us.
“We were reading war poetry and as I read John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields Ivy shifted in her seat, and I could tell before I finished the poem that she wanted to speak. One memory in particular, translated through the poetry, brought tears to her eyes as she shared it with the group:
‘I remember once I walked in on my Father as he was changing his shirt ready to go out with Mother. He shouted ‘Don’t come in, I’ll be down in a minute’, but it was too late, I had seen his side and there was a great hole there. I ran down the stairs to Mother crying and said ‘What happened to Dad? Did he fall down the stairs? And she said, ‘No love, that is a war wound’. I remember I was so upset.’
Her emotion at recalling the story of the wound demonstrated why, even though it took place when she was very young, this was an event which shaped her and has stayed with her over the years. I asked her if she was okay, if she was happy to continue reading the poems and she replied ‘Oh yes, I like them.’ When we read next Now to be still and rest, while the heart remembers by P.H.B. Lyon, she smiled and nodded and was keen to point out, ‘We celebrate every year, we never forget.’ “
Our research with partners CRILS at the University of Liverpool further demonstrates how reading poetry aloud can have powerful effects on people across all ages, backgrounds and life situations, from those living with dementia for whom poetry can stimulate emotional experiences in the present as well as rememberance and help to improve mood, to encouraging better social, emotional and psychological wellbeing amongst female prisoners. The shared reading of poems and literature has the effect of creating bonds and friendships, which our research has found contributes to a more positive outlook on life.
As the year is still fresh, here’s to more poetry, less stress and loneliness – and in reading together, sharing the comfort that comes from great literature on a wider scale.
*EDIT: This event is now SOLD OUT*
Mental Health in Context
Tuesday 21st April, 5.30-7.30pm
The Women’s Organisation, 54 James Street, Liverpool L1 0AB
Introduced by Vice Chancellor of University of Liverpool, Professor Janet Beer
featuring a guest appearance from Jeanette Winterson, in conversation and reading from her work
with Professor Rhiannon Corcoran, Dr Jane Davis and Dr Eleanor Longden
This inaugural event of a new research group at the University of Liverpool will showcase real-life research in the University for the City in vital areas of human well-being.
Working within the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, Mental Health in Context brings together experts in the University of Liverpool from various fields of psychology and culture to consider mental health difficulties within the broader context of the social, cultural and personal realms in order to improve the understanding and treatment of those difficulties in the modern world.
This special event, launching Mental Health in Context and showing its relation to real-life concerns in the city and the region, will highlight four major projects of major relevance to public well-being , including the development of the International Centre for Reading and Wellbeing at Calderstones Mansion. For more information on the projects, please see the MHIC website.
Jeanette Winterson, the distinguished novelist who was born and raised in the North West of England, will speak of her own mental health experiences including her fictional and autobiographical writings, including her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her belief in alternative interventions including in particular the uses of literature, and read from her work.
“Dealing with our world is really hard work. It is hard to be healthy, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, in a world where there is so little security and so much fear. Ill health is a response, a consequence of the way we live. It should not be pushed back onto us all as a personal problem. For me it’s the relationship between mind, body, outside world, and soul. The body so often carries the burdens of mental disturbance – usually through addiction, which can be food, drink, drugs, self-harming, or the pathology of wanting to be attractive all the time. Good mental health depends on knowing that life has an inside as well as an outside. That’s why meditation is so good. That’s why reading and the arts are so good. Knowing how to be on your own is one of the keystones of mental health.” – Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette was interviewed by The Reader Organisation’s Founder Jane Davis for The Reader prior to the publication of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? about her experiences. The interview can be found online here: https://readerjanedavis.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/jeanette-winterson-in-conversation/
Dr Eleanor Longden exemplifies the nature of the project and the evening: she is someone who has had both profound personal experience of mental difficulties and is also a researcher within MHIC at University of Liverpool. She exemplifies the crucial two-way relation between research and reality, which is the subject-matter and purpose of MHIC. Her TED talk, ‘The Voices in My Head’, has attracted wide interest, amassing nearly 3 million views (and can be viewed here).
Places to attend are free, and can be booked here: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/mental-health-in-context-launch-event-tickets-16237051458
A huge congratulations go to The Reader Organisation in the South West, who were winners at the Wiltshire Public Health Awards last night.
Our Wiltshire shared reading project, running in partnership with Wiltshire Libraries, picked up the prize for improved mental health and wellbeing across the area. Running since January 2014, Library Memory Groups bring the shared reading experience to people living with dementia and memory loss on a weekly basis. With poems and short stories that are read aloud, group members are immersed in a calm and relaxed atmosphere, with the texts being read and digested allowing people to piece together collective personal memories related to the stories and poems, which in turn encourages feelings of wellbeing.
Group members and their family members and carers have reported that the weekly sessions have a positive impact on their mood, allowing them to rediscover and enjoy literature with others and giving the opportunity to make new friends and connections within their community.
The project has also involved volunteers to assist in running the groups, allowing it to extend further across the region.
The Wiltshire Public Health Awards, run by Wiltshire Council, recognise individuals, projects and organisations for their contributions to improving the health and wellbeing of people who live and work in Wiltshire in nine different categories, including the mental health award. This year’s awards saw a staggering 120 nominees enter, so the achievement is something we’re especially proud of.
Jennifer McDerra, The Reader Organisation’s Development Manager for Public Health and Dementia, was at the ceremony in Trowbridge to pick up the award on behalf of the team. A special congratulations goes to Wiltshire Project Worker Josephine Corcoran who has done so much to get the project off the ground and maintained its success onto to award-winning status!
You can read more about the Wiltshire project, and the remarkable effects it has had on group members on Josephine’s blog:
A new Library Memory Group will be starting at Salisbury Library in Wiltshire on Thursdays, 11am-12pm, weekly from 23rd April. Other Library Memory Groups in the area currently run in Trowbridge, Warminster and Mere (Wednesdays) and Royal Wootton Bassett and Pewsey (Thursdays). For full details on the groups, visit our website or follow @TheReaderSW on Twitter:
Next Thursday – 5th February – is Time to Talk Day, and everyone around the UK and beyond is being encouraged to spend 5 minutes having a conversation about mental health on the day to help break down the stigma surrounding the topic. Whether with friends and family, at work, in school or university or within the wider community, anywhere is a good place to talk.
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eyes sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
– Matthew Arnold, The Buried Life
Shared reading goes hand-in-hand with stimulating good mental health and wellbeing, with the literature that is read reflecting life often in its toughest times. Through exploring the words of our greatest writers – many of whom experienced tests and tribulations – our weekly groups open up a space where thoughts and feelings can be explored and worked through together, while also providing new perspectives to emerge from the texts and the characters within them.
“It’s good because our lives are like stories.” – shared reading group member on an acute mental health ward
We work in a variety of mental health and community settings on a weekly basis from Liverpool and the North West to the South West and London, with our groups giving members the chance to read, talk and feel better:
“When reading, I could use my voice to express ideas from someone else, outside myself, not to be judged, not to be evaluated by what I meant, not to be diagnosed by my turn of phrase, but just to speak and be heard. When reading, over time I was able to measure my road to recovery, in the clarity of my vision, thought and voice as I got better.” – former inpatient and library shared reading group member
72% of our group members felt that shared reading had helped them to think about things in a different way, and 70% feel their group has helped them to understand people better.
Ahead of Time to Talk Day, our project workers have given us some recommendations of poems that have been enjoyed in our shared reading groups in mental health settings – all great sources to get you talking about mental health and much more.
- The Door – Miroslav Holub
- The Journey – Mary Oliver
- What if this Road – Sheenagh Pugh
- Phenomenal Woman – Maya Angelou
- A Return – Elizabeth Jennings
- The Ideal – James Fenton
- Kindness – Naomi Shihab Nye
- I am Completely Different – Sabura Kurado
- A Time to Talk – Robert Frost
- When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes (Sonnet 29) – William Shakespeare
Find out more about Time to Talk Day and how you can get involved: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/timetotalkday
Better with a Book, The Reader Organisation’s fifth annual National Conference, is coming to The British Library Conference Centre in London on Thursday 15th May, with booking now open. Join us and special guests including Lord Melvyn Bragg, Baroness Estelle Morris and Dr Alice Sullivan to explore how shared reading and literature can be utilised to improve mental health, stimulate emotional wellbeing and enhance quality of life.
Amongst the speakers at Better with a Book is Lord Alan Howarth, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing and previous Minister for Schools and Higher Education (1989-1992) and Minister for the Arts (1998-2001). Lord Howarth previously spoke about The Reader Organisation and his experience attending shared reading groups at last year’s Culture, Health and Wellbeing Conference, in a speech about the creative power of the arts to make an impact on the health of individuals and communities.
After visiting one of our regular groups at Wormwood Scrubs, Lord Howarth corresponded with the group’s leader and practitioner Megg Hewlett, Reader-in-Residence at West London Mental Health Trust, to comment on the positive effects he found that shared reading had in the highly secure environment:
“I’m in no doubt that this particular experience of reading helps the participants to think anew about moral, personal and social issues through focusing calmly and attentively on the texts and relating to other people engaged collaboratively in the same activity.” – Lord Alan Howarth to Megg Hewlett, After the Visit, The Reader 53
A series of the correspondence between Lord Howarth and Megg appears in Issue 53 of The Reader magazine, alongside an interview with columnist and former prisoner Erwin James. In light of the recent news restricting the access that prisoners have to books, the piece indicates how shared reading of quality literature can offer bonding, a greater sense of self-awareness and a better understanding of a world outside of the self to prisoners and those residing in secure environments, factors which help to contribute to reducing reoffending. Lord Howarth will be chairing a discussion between Megg and Nick Benefield, previously Joint Head of the NHS and NOMS Offender Personality Disorder Implementation Programme, about the effects of shared reading as a therapeutic intervention in secure environments as part of Better with a Book.
In their correspondence featuring in The Reader 53, Megg explains the challenges of reading within a secure environment to Lord Howarth, which include engaging often reluctant readers amongst other factors. Yet once they discover that reading can be enjoyable and uplifting, other significant benefits follow:
“For many I read with a book is as terrifying as climbing a vertical rockface with little equipment and no training. When they first come into the room the terror is often palpable – a being in its own right – and my job is to attend to that part of the person, settle it down, and help them find some joy in something that has only previously given pain or been of no interest. You’re looking for small indications but they mark big events. The most common comment I have in that group is ‘I didn’t think I’d like this but it’s not bad’. When I hear this I feel a tiny ripple of triumph.”
Hear Megg speak to Lord Howarth firsthand about the experiences of sharing reading in secure environments, and learn more about how shared reading works practically in Psychologically Informed Planned Environments (PIPEs) at Better with a Book.
Full day delegate places (including VAT, lunch and refreshments) cost £140. Booking is available online via Eventbrite or via cheque or invoice – full information on how to book using these payment methods is available on the Conference page of our website. For queries or more information, please contact Abigail on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0151 207 7221.
For all the latest news on the Conference, follow the #betterwithabook hashtag on Twitter
Shad has been coming to Book Break, one of our shared reading groups, for two years. He is Kurdish, originally from the north of Iraq.
This is Shad’s story, in his own words.
I’m very ill, sleeping all day if there is nothing to go to. I get up for the group because it is something to get up for.
My childhood, my problem started when I was four or five years old. I stayed away from groups. Coming to this country was not easy, it was completely different. Book Break is the first group I have been to in my whole life! I was talking to my occupational therapist and he said “We have a Book Break”. I like reading; it is a hobby, I like education and to study. I enjoyed reading as a kid. That was my enjoyment as a child. I wanted to know things. In my country I was reading Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Shakespeare but in Arabic. I’d been trying since I came here to the UK. Before Book Break I’d spend three hours in the library and buying books but I can’t concentrate reading by myself. I still can’t read by myself and enjoy it and keep going. I can’t concentrate. I believe I was losing my memory. I can’t remember the story.
At Book Break when someone starts talking (about what we read last week) then my memory comes back, like a flashback. I have it. It triggers, I remember.
We read it slowly so even if I can’t get the words or the meaning, I get a sense of it and when we stop reading I can ask the English word. Then when I go home I find it on google.
It’s getting my confidence back that I can read stories again. I lost trust to be with people or put my opinion. I lost confidence. But here in Book Break I can discuss difficult things and people still welcome me back. That was missing in my life, even in my family.
Book Break is like you say whatever you are going to say. It’s really friendly. Book Break is like a perfect family. Different ages, male and female, we all still talk and discuss. I can’t believe this kind of group exists. I feel it’s like a true family. It’s hard for me to feel comfortable and relaxed after all I’ve been through.
Since 2005 the furthest area I went to was near my house. I came to Waterloo Station for the Book Break Christmas party which was really big for me. It gave me confidence and hope. I looked at the faces – we all looked like we’d been lost and found each other through Book Break. It linked me. I thought, “They are like me, they like novels, they like stories.”
I’ve been told to go to many groups but I couldn’t find myself there. I feel sick going to interviews. Book Break is the only group I come to voluntarily. I love it. If I’m not well I can come back as if I hadn’t missed. People are welcoming.
Usually in a group when I try and talk about what I’ve been through it feels wrong and I don’t feel I can talk about it or go back. Here at Book Break, through the stories, I feel I can talk and I feel really good, not bad. And I feel a relief. This is what happens through the stories. Comparing myself with the stories, this helps me. It gives me hope.
I tried to end my life because I found no hope or where I belonged or who I could trust or who I could talk to. In this group it’s about the books and discussing things that happened to us. And listening to other people’s stories, it’s not just me, it gives me hope.
In the street people don’t talk about what’s happened to them. But in the group we talk about what’s happened to us. We can help each other. Trust is there. I helped another group member with the puncture on her car and she thanked me. Book Break feels safe.
I want people to know my story to encourage other people.