January 30, 2021

How Does a Poet Write Engagingly and Meaningfully About Mental Health, and Avoid the Unhelpful Trope of the “Tortured Artist”?

Niall Casson

PoetryMelancholics Anonymous,

Melancholics Anonymous explores my history/relationship with depression and anxiety. Initially, it was a way of constructively overcoming the “writer’s block” resulting from a depressive period I experienced while working on the dissertation for my Creative Writing MA.

As I read, researched, and wrote, what struck me is that mental health is often treated as an isolated experience: the individual retreats from the world, they eventually heal, they return to society. However, if society itself exacerbates mental ill-health—widening inequalities, work/life imbalance, pressure to succeed/accumulate, discrimination, chronic underfunding of mental health services—what then?

The first step as a creative individual, I feel, is to contribute to the discourse about mental health in a way that connects meaningfully and engagingly: that dialogue becomes a connective tissue, not only between those who have experienced mental ill-health and seek a community that comprehends, but those who haven’t, who seek to understand its many nuances better.

The subsequent challenge is how to connect and provide insight through poetry while avoiding the unhelpful trope of the “tortured artist”, or the “melancholic genius”. Melancholics Anonymous attempts this by invoking and playing with all the poet’s tools: inventiveness, humour, form, language, the unexpected, and of course, hope.