Poetry therapy is a unique form of psychotherapy that falls under the broader category of expressive therapy. It relies upon the use of poems, song lyrics, imagery, metaphor, and stories to facilitate personal growth, healing, and greater self-awareness. Poetry therapy involves the use of both published and original material. The therapist will use a variety of interactive methods, including having participants write their own poems and stories, read them out loud to the group (or just the therapist in individual therapy), and also read or listen to published works.
Poetry therapy works primarily by evoking an emotional response through this process of creating, writing, sharing, and listening. Poetry and literature – just like art, music, drama, and dance – have the unique ability to touch people very deeply. Individuals who don’t respond well to traditional talk therapy – which can feel a bit threatening to some – may respond very well to an expressive therapy like poetry. This may be because they find it easier to put painful thoughts and emotions into a poem rather than talk about them directly to a therapist. Also, another group member’s poem or story may resonate with them on a deeply personal level, giving them new insight into themselves or someone close to them.
In poetry therapy, the therapist – who has extensive training in psychology, literature, and usually group dynamics as well – selects poems and other pieces based on the needs of the individual client or group. For example, someone struggling with depression may benefit from a poem about finding the silver lining in a foreboding dark cloud or appreciating the joy – no matter how small – that can come in the most unexpected ways when they open their heart to it. Someone healing from trauma may identify with a poem about feeling vulnerable, or about putting the pieces back together after something has been broken and discovering it’s become something wonderful and new.
Poetry therapists also encourage their clients to write poems, song lyrics, or stories as a way of expressing their thoughts and feelings. Each individual’s creations gives the therapist valuable information about what’s going on inside that person. Often, a poem, story, or lyric will reveal something that’s not even in the client’s conscious awareness. The therapist’s task is to help clients find meaning in their creations, and also to explore and understand the emotional impact that someone else’s poem or story may have on them.
It’s essential in poetry therapy – as in other types of psychotherapy – that the therapist provides an environment in which participants feel very safe and supported. This enables them to talk freely, honestly, and openly about whatever they’re feeling or experiencing in the moment. It also makes it easier for them to lower their guard, which can be a challenging task for many individuals once they get into therapy.
One of the most powerful aspects of poetry therapy is that it helps participants find their own voice. This can be especially empowering and life-changing for someone who’s working through unresolved trauma, experiencing cognitive decline due to dementia, or battling low self-esteem due to the negative stigma of a mental illness or physical disability. As therapy clients express themselves via poetry, stories, and song lyrics, they begin to find joy, hope, and healing – and a stronger sense of self.
History of Poetry Therapy
Poems in a many different forms go back thousands of years. They were chanted in religious ceremonies and recorded in sacred books. For example, the book of Psalms in the Bible contains the poems of David, Solomon, and several other authors. Many people turn to the Psalms for comfort and hope, and some of these Biblical poems are recited frequently as prayers.
Some experts regard Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus, who lived during the first century A.D., as the first “poetry therapist”. As a healer, Soranus recognized the power of literature and poetry, prescribing comedy for patients who were struggling with depression and tragedy for those suffering from mania.
Hundreds of years later, in the mid-1700s, Pennsylvania Hospital utilized activities such as reading and writing in the treatment of psychiatric patients. Dr. Benjamin Rush, often referred to as the “Father of American Psychiatry”, had his patients write and publish poetry. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, until “poetry therapy” started to gain popularity and traction as a viable form of mental health treatment. In 1969 the Association for Poetry Therapy was founded by psychiatrist Dr. Jack Leedy, psychotherapist Dr. Gil Schloss, and literature professor Ann White. In 1981, the National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT) was incorporated.
Today, poetry therapy is used in mental health centers, psychiatric and general hospitals, schools, senior centers, nursing homes, residential treatment programs, prisons, and many other settings throughout the U.S. and several other countries.
Goals of Poetry Therapy
The goals of poetry therapy will vary from one individual to the next. For example, some individuals need help understanding themselves better so they can have healthier relationships with family, friends, or a life partner. Others need help healing from the profound wounds of trauma. Other goals include helping individuals:
- Give a voice to thoughts and emotions that they’ve found difficult to articulate
- Improve communication skills
- Develop a stronger self-esteem
- Learn to express themselves in a way that’s healthy and appropriate
- Enhance their creativity and problem solving skills
- Gain a more accurate and realistic perception of themselves
- Develop greater empathy and understanding of others
- Release emotional pain that’s kept them stuck in negative or maladaptive thought or behavior patterns
- Alleviate anxiety and stress
- Discover new meaning, purpose, and passion in life
Disorders, Conditions and Other Problems That Can Benefit From Poetry Therapy
Poetry therapy can be beneficial for individuals suffering from a wide array of mental health disorders, life problems, and even serious physical health issues, including:
- Depression (including depression in teens)
- Eating disorders
- Addiction recovery
- PTSD and trauma recovery (including recovery from childhood abuse, domestic violence, incest, and rape)
- Anxiety (including anxiety in children)
- Grief and loss
- Couple’s and / or family conflict
- Relationship issues
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Low self-esteem
- Social phobia
- Developmental delays
- Learning disabilities
- Coping with bullying
- Anger issues
- LGBT issues (including coming out as well as learning to accept and support a loved one who identifies as LGBT)
With regards to individuals who are recovering from substance abuse or addiction, writing poetry and stories can be instrumental in their progress. People often turn to alcohol or drugs when they feel they have no voice – no outlet – for their pain. This situation often perpetuates itself as friends and family gradually stop listening due to the negative impact the substance has on the addict. Poetry therapy provides an opportunity for recovering addicts to feel heard again. It also helps them feel more connected to others as they share their experience through their writing.
Realizing so many others have walked the same painful road can ease the burden of dealing with addiction. It’s empowering for recovering addicts to discover they’re not alone; that there are others who genuinely understand the hell they’ve endured and won’t judge them for the choices they’ve made. The process of writing, reading, and sharing poetry as a sober person can greatly boost their self-esteem and self-confidence as they begin to see themselves in a new, more positive light. This helps reduce the risk of relapse in the future.
For individuals recovering from trauma, poetry therapy can provide a much needed catharsis. The intensely intimate emotional pain they’ve carried deep within for months, years, and even decades can finally find a safe and creative outlet through writing poetry. Also, trauma can severely damage a person’s self-image, especially trauma that occurred in the form of sexual or physical abuse in childhood. Poetry therapy enables trauma survivors let go of crippling self-images as they create new ones that are self-supportive and empowered.
Poetry therapy can help adolescents who struggle with depression. The creative aspect of expressive therapy often feels less threatening than talk therapy. Many teens find it easier to use the metaphors, imagery, and symbolism of poetry to explore and express their feelings, make sense of their struggles. Poetry therapy enables them to replace self-destructive thought patterns and behaviors, low self-esteem, and feelings of hopelessness with a more hopeful and self-affirming view of themselves and the world.
Poetry therapy can be beneficial for all ages – from young children and troubled or at risk teens to adults and the very elderly. It can also be effective in many ways for individuals coping with serious physical health conditions including terminal illness, war veterans, and prisoners.
Benefits of Poetry Therapy
As an expressive therapy, poetry therapy offers a multitude of potential benefits for those who participate in it. They include, but aren’t limited to:
- The opportunity to reflect on one’s life
- A new sense of hope when the future seems bleak or hopeless
- Greater self-confidence, especially in terms of trying new things
- Increased ability to forgive hurts and let go of regrets
- Greater insight into oneself
- Finding comfort and healing following a painful loss
- Healing from trauma
- Ability to look at life or specific events from a new perspective
- Improved coping and problem solving skills
- Decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Courage to face challenges and overcome set-backs
- Cognitive stimulation
- Improved interpersonal skills
- Stronger and more effective communication skills
- Greater ability to self-soothe and handle stress
- Healthier and more satisfying relationships with others
Therapist Training and Credentials
Since expressive therapies like poetry therapy have been found to be highly effective, especially with certain populations, many psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, and other types of therapists specialize in the use of this particular type of therapy with their clients or patients.
Most poetry therapists receive their training and credentialing through the Internal Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy (IFBPT). Credentials for poetry therapists include:
- Registered Poetry Therapist (PTR) (advanced)
- Certified Poetry Therapy (CPT)
- Certified Applied Poetry Facilitator (CAPF) (basic)
Certified (CPT) and registered (PTR) poetry therapists have at least a master’s degree in a psychology-related field (e.g. psychology, social work, marriage and family therapy, or counselling). Some have doctorates in clinical psychology or medicine. They are licensed professionals who are qualified to work with emotionally troubled, mentally ill, and mentally healthy patients and clients in a variety of settings including mental health clinics, hospitals, and other settings. Registered poetry therapists have also completed advanced training and supervised clinical work, above and beyond the training for certified therapists.
Poetry therapists with the CAPF credential are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree. They have a basic understanding of psychology and group dynamics, but are qualified to work only with mentally healthy individuals one-on-one or in a group setting. They work primarily in school, recreational, and other settings that focus on growth and development. It is their responsibility to recognize distress or mental illness in clients and refer them on to a mental health professional when indicated. They can also work in a mental health setting if they’re supervised by a licensed mental health professional.
Finding a Poetry Therapist
One of the best ways to find a qualified poetry therapist is through the website of the IFBPT. You may find a poetry therapist through a local mental health clinic or hospital. Always make sure the therapist you choose to work with has the proper training, experience, and credentials.
Poetry therapy is very different from talk therapy. The creative aspect of poetry therapy makes it a more enjoyable and less threatening way for some to explore their issues, process trauma, and deepen their self-awareness than talking directly to a therapist in traditional talk therapy. Also, it can be a powerful adjunctive therapy for anyone who’s already in another form of psychotherapy.
You don’t need to have any talent or writing skills to benefit from poetry therapy. Many individuals who participate in poetry therapy and other types of expressive therapy are often surprised at how creative they really are once they open themselves up to the process. Any poem that comes from within naturally has its own inherent beauty because it’s an expression of your heart and soul.