This week is Children’s Mental Health Week, and our Young Writers Project Manager Angus Woodhams is thinking about the impact writing has had on his mental health.
Why is writing important? As a newer staff member at the National Literacy Trust, I’ve been reflecting on the purpose and impact of my work in the Young Writers team. I wondered: what does a young person gain from being a confident writer? One who does it not just because they have to, but because they want to?
As a result, I started to reflect on my own writing journey.
To be clear, I don’t consider myself as a ‘writer’ per se, but I’ve come to appreciate how important this particular skill has been for my life. As a left-handed person – who make up only 10% of the population - I was always more acutely aware of the physical act of writing than my peers. Fortunately, I faced fewer barriers compared to those who came before me and were forced to use their right hand (despite dealing with the annoying tendency to rub out my work as I wrote!)
But that is beside the point. Thinking back to my childhood, at school I loved writing. I could fill up whole exercise books with fantasises of other worlds and grand adventures. Combined with reading, I can see how it helped the development my imagination. Thanks to brilliant teachers and supportive parents, I was lucky enough to be nurtured with the freedom to write as I saw fit - to not worry about spelling or clarity or what someone else would think. This helped to develop my confidence and creativity, which it turns out, would have huge ramifications for my life further down the track.
Fast forward to today: at 31, how do I use writing now?
Since I was in school, the world has changed drastically. Pen and paper are quickly giving way to computers, with many of us instead typing in a word document, texting on a phone, or even dictating to an AI like Alexa, without having to use our hands at all. But the fundamentals stay the same: the composition of words.
Writing in all its forms has been undeniably helpful in my work, becoming a vital part of my creative process when articulating project plans and ideas, through something as simple as a quick email all the way up to creating a multi-page evaluation report.
But there is another vital part that doesn’t get talked about as often. Last year with my therapist, I came across a term called complex-post traumatic stress, which I strongly identified with following a medley of things in my past. What this means is that in my day to day I can often brood and worry, causing my thoughts to run away with me.
But I’ve found one of the most effective strategies for me: writing out my thoughts, my worries and unanswered questions. Afterwards I feel a sense of catharsis, a calmness. The power of the ruminations are transferred from my mind into black and white. Science has fortunately caught up with this common practice: “Researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) have found neural evidence to support the benefits of writing down the things that elicit feelings of worry and anxiety.” This blog post also describes the many ways writing can help someone’s brain and wellbeing.
Having kept up a journal for a while now, another benefit I’ve noticed is being able to look back on things I’ve written. This encourages me by showing how far I’ve progressed in my therapy and it also helps to hold me accountable to myself, as I will often pick up on thoughts and ideas I’d jotted down that I’d forgotten about or chosen to ignore.
Upon reflection, and partly due to writing this blog, I think I am a writer. Maybe just the fact that I use the skill in my day to day life qualifies me for that label. You don’t have to be a best-selling novelist or a world famous playwright. Sending an email to your parents can change a relationship for the better, or a quick tweet about some injustice you see in the world could inspire hundreds of strangers from all around. Language is everywhere, and as we’ve seen, it’s incredibly powerful. Transmitting ideas through writing, not only to one another, but also to ourselves like with my journal, is a unique and treasured part of the human experience.
The anecdotal experience I explored here lines up well with some research my colleagues at the National Literacy Trust have done, with the most interesting finding for me being: “Children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have higher levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged” . In my opinion, what more proof do you need?
If you want to discuss topics or ideas you have around writing, wellbeing, imagination and/or creativity please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to Jessica Rowley at the British Science Association for her help with this blog.
For those with a mental health condition: while writing has worked for me in my recovery, please consult with a mental health professional before committing to it as strategy as it can make some symptoms worse if not managed correctly.
Find out more about Children’s Mental Health week on children's mental health charity Place2Be’s website.