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The Hornet

Serving the Fullerton Community Since 1922

The Hornet

How poetry can improve your mental health


Written and Reported by S.A. Falcon

Surrounded by books on shelves and seating that is almost church-like, a microphone stands right in front, waiting for its first poet. The room is filled with commotion as people welcome each other, but the loudness of the audience comes to a halt as Heather Pease approaches the microphone and begins to recite a verse. 

The audience listens in depth, and a few heads nod up and down as if agreeing with the poet’s words. A loud clap startles the audience, one person’s need to let others know they related to that line. After Pease starts the night with her poem, people began going up in turn to present their worded art. 

Poetry therapy is a form of writing that specialists use to treat a range of mental health issues. Therapists note that poetry is a form of writing that helps a person express their deepest subconscious mind in a coded matter. It is a way someone can say something without being direct. Poetry therapy is the gateway to healing for some people who use it during testing times. 

“I can say that for my clients where I have prescribed poetry or read poetry in my sessions, they’ve all noted improved benefits in their mood and stress levels,” says bibliotherapist and psychodynamic counselor Bijal Shah. 

Shah has prescribed poetry to about 22 clients, and with positive response rate of 80% she is planning to introduce more clients to this type of therapy due to the support it has offered clients.

“Anything that pauses for reflection and explanation is always helpful to get people from that place of feeling hopeless to being able to see that times can change,” says psychologist Lynn Hardimon. 

Hardimon explains that having any outlet that lets an individual express their emotional state of mind is beneficial. With an outlet like poetry, a person can sit and have a conversation between just them and the paper. It’s a safe zone, where a person can reflect on themselves as well as the environment around them. 

Hardimon says studies show that mind and body connections are essential for daily life and can be beneficial to those experiencing anything from depression, to severe mental health issues, such as developmental or neurological issues. 

“Being able to make that mind and body connection, the better it is for conceptualizing the world around them as well as interacting with the interface of daily activities.” 

Ryan Aguayo browses at Half Off Books Photo Credit: Nick Arriaga

Vulnerability can be overwhelming as you sit down in front of a loud blank piece of paper. 

“Write the thing you’re scared to say and write for the child within,” recites Pease, the coordinador for the poetry open mic night at Half Off Books in Fullerton. 

A poet’s hand conducts almost music-like from left to right, preparing a story so personal it starts as a lump in their throat. However, through all the emotions, they begin to write due to the helpfulness they experience while writing poetry. 

“Words express how I am feeling,” says Melissa Contreras, another reader who performed at Half Off Books. She explains when all other outlets fail, words don’t. “They help during difficult times.” 

Contreras kept a journal to direct her thoughts about her mother’s illness, and those writings lead to a poem. She says talking about her mother’s illness is difficult, so writing is her outlet. “Through poetry I can do more than acknowledge my challenges. I can also remind myself and others of how strong we can be,” she says. 

Poetry is something sacred to those who practice it; for a person to spill their deepest thoughts or desires takes such strength. Fullerton College creative writing professor Cynthia Guardado puts it: “Poetry can express past trauma.”

Guardado expresses her emotions through her poetry in her book, “Endeavor.” She uses poetry as a way to process family trauma she has experienced. 

Similarly, Ryan Aguayo wrote his poetry collection “The Mental Storm,” about events that happened to him. His writing was a form of self care, a way of letting go of the bad to make room for the new. 

“I started writing poetry as a form of self therapy. It’s the freedom to say what you want without being judged,” says Aguayo.

Poetry has mental health benefits not just for those who write it, but also those who read or listen to it. People can be moved by a poem, and in some ways relate to it or have a connection with another’s words.

Joe Rosati, owner of The Night Owl in downtown Fullerton, makes it a point for poets to be heard by hosting open mic poetry nights. “We all need a place to feel important, calm,” he says. “With social media in hand, it’s important to step away for a while to shape ideas, thoughts and all the other things that make us human.” 

Open mic poetry nights are like a concert where words are the music. Live performance makes poetry come to life in a different way; it becomes a soundtrack to empathy, inspiration, and healing. 

Back at Half Off Books, the microphone again stands without a poet as the church rowed seats sit emptied, waiting to hear another. The night’s readings are over, but the remembrance of one poem is engraved on the space. It’s the words of a poet who goes by Humanoid that express a poet’s desire:

“I write to feel less alone.”