Speak the Unspeakable: Writing Poetry as an Act of Mental Health Advocacy

by Jeanann Verlee

October, 2023

It’s 3:46 a.m. You’re flat on your back in the dark sanctuary of your own bedroom, nestled deep in the sheets. Maybe you’ve just settled back in after a quick trip to the bathroom, and now: the brain-race. Synapses start sparking, sleep’s fog dissipates, reality blasts in, and boom—the hamster wheel’s rotating full-throttle. Maybe it’s your relentless to-do list. Maybe it’s the doom of how you’re going to cover rent. Maybe it’s the dread of that conversation, the one your brain keeps practicing on an endless loop. You need to sleep. Desperately. But your brain’s already galloping.

Anxiety disorders manifest in myriad ways, but they are the most common mental health issue in the United States, affecting over 19% of the population. As many as 26% of Americans live with some form of mental illness, including major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and anxiety-based illnesses (OCD, PTSD, C-PTSD, phobias, generalized anxiety, etc.). Increased access to information has improved stigma over time, but knowledge alone has not fully changed attitudes. Bias runs deep. What, then, can we do?



Writing poetry is an act of advocacy

Art is rooted in activism. Poetry has long served communities as a place of social resistance. As a young girl, I was intensely drawn to the work of Langston Hughes. I recited his poem, “Justice” to anyone who might listen. The graphic hyperbole of “festering sores” punched me in my gut. The poignant sting of “once perhaps were eyes” unlocked a horror I had not previously considered. Hughes’ diminutive four-line poem opened my understanding of systemic racism and invited me to learn more. 

During high school, I discovered a worn and well-loved copy of Nilene O. A. Foxworth’s chapbook, Bury Me in Africa in a secondhand store. Over thirty years later, it still resides on my shelf of favorites. Dogeared among the pages is another poem I committed to memory, “Sho Nuff.” Not because it spoke to my lived experience, but because it illuminated for me the hypocrisy of white beauty standards in a society rooted in racist ideology.

The poetry of writers like Clifton, Baldwin, Angelou, Brooks, and countless more, brought a broader understanding of racism to white readers like myself in ways that textbooks (woefully lacking information and often riddled with misinformation) failed.

Lived experience. Authenticity. Contextualization. Poems.

Poetry and storytelling as a tool for imaginative learning is fundamental to fostering empathy. Empathy is a fundamental component in changing attitudes. When you share your lived experience with me, I can better understand how you came to be who you are. I learn from your authenticity. I expand. I am impelled to shift my ways of thinking and behaving. It can begin to erode my implicit biases. This is writing as an act of resistance for social, cultural, and political change. This is advocacy. 


How to write poems about mental health?

Write what you know. I first started putting stories and poems to paper when I was seven years old. My first poem was a singsong rhyme, and dark as hell for a kid. Raised in an environment of alcoholism, abuse, and abandonment, I developed mental health issues in adolescence. I’m a survivor of emotional, physical, and sexual trauma and I live with complex-PTSD, chronic anxiety, bipolar disorder, and autoimmune disease. I spent years navigating misdiagnoses and periods of insufficient or inappropriate medication on my health journey. Much of my writing explores these themes, working to illuminate trauma and survivorship, and to destigmatize mental illness.

Stigma can shame us into silence and solitude, which has an amplifying effect. Not only must we navigate our own health and wellness, but ugly biases and social ostracism can drive us into isolation or even denial—states in which we both become more ill and stop tending to our health. 

To combat stigma, we must help others understand our lived experiences. We have to talk about it. Through poetry, I try to find ways to reveal the unspeakable and pull what is misunderstood into the light. I work to detail my own stories and situations honestly so others can gain understanding—so they can empathize, and, I hope, be impelled to change their ways of thinking and behaving.

So, start with what you know. You. Your own lived experiences. You are complicated, important, and utterly unique. No one knows your life better than you, so pick up the pen! If you are daunted by the vulnerability of writing in first person or realism, push creative boundaries. Experiment with second person, an omniscient speaker, or magical realism. Turn your depression into an interstellar cloud. Write about your nervous tics as a musical score. Rename the predator Chucklehead. Poetry is boundless. Find ways to write authentically while still nurturing your own psyche.


Poetry as advocacy is still poetry

You may have chronic anxiety that comes fluttering into your chest unexpectedly during the middle of a GEICO commercial. You may be muscling up the energy to call your therapist for an unplanned mid-week session to discuss your deepening bout of depression. You may be tornadoing through the apartment performing a disinfecting deep-clean in a burst of hypomania. When you sit to write about your personal experience, remember that you’re an artist! Don’t forget the fun part: craft.

You’re a storyteller. Lean into poetic elements and nuance. Skirt expository writing and kick the rust off your illustrative writing skills. Experiment—language is malleable and infinite. And always, be specific. As poet, educator, and friend Lauren Whitehead espouses to her students, “Specificity is king!” Explore the complexities of what makes you uniquely YOU.

When you sit to write, decide if you want to write in realism or magical realism. Choose your point of view: first person, second, omniscient, etc. If your initial choices don’t feel right, try a new perspective, style, or entry point. Here are some prompts to get you started:

  1. List 5 behaviors you perform in relation to your mental health (be honest, include behaviors that sustain wellness and/or those that do not). Write the origin story of one of these behaviors. Be as realistic or fantastical as you please. 
  2. List 5 past situations that troubled you, triggered your anxiety, or caused a manic or depressive episode. Select one situation and give it a makeover. If the walls were green, paint them orange. If the person was shouting, have them whisper. Rewrite the situation in nuanced shades. Shift the axis.
  3. List 7 characteristics that make you uniquely you (again, be honest—include variables of positive and negative attributes, remember how complex you are). Imagin
    e one of your attributes is its own being. Sentient. Embodied. What does it sound like? How does it speak, hum, or sing? What is its odor, color, and texture? Is it colossal? Microscopic? What are its needs? How do you care for it? House it? Feed it? Keep it safe? Does it command you or serve you or walk alongside you?
  4. Identify at least one inanimate possession that emboldens you or brings you comfort (e.g., a trinket, jacket, medication, pair of shoes, stuffed animal, photograph of elementary school classmates, etc.). Write a poem about what happens when that possession comes alive.
  5. Name the thing you don’t want people to know (e.g., OCD). Give it a new name (e.g. Raspberry Swirl Non-dairy Ice Cream). Write about it metaphorically.


Not everyone lives with mental illness, but everyone lives

As clinical psychologist and writer Kay Redfield Jameson addresses in her book, Touched with Fire, many artists live with mental illness. Of course, many artists do not, but to be alive is to experience challenges and trauma. And to write about such lived experience is to advocate for social, cultural, and political change.

Here are some tiles I highly recommend that explore trauma, survivorship, mental health, and more:

Bianca by Eugenia Leigh

Salt Body Shimmer by Aricka Foreman

Odes to Lithium by Shira Elrichman

BLUD by Rachel McKibbens

Madness by Sam Sax

Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse

Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night by Morgan Parker

Debridement by C. Bain

Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar

Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones


Keep going! Find each author’s full catalog. Let each acknowledgements page lead you to other writers. Dig and keep digging. Learn and keep learning.

~  •  •  •  ~

A final note: While reading or writing poetry can be therapeutic, it does not replace therapy and medicine. Consult with your healthcare experts, stay well, and keep writing!

Jeanann Verlee is the author of three books of poetry: prey, Said the Manic to the Muse, and award-winning Racing Hummingbirds. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, the Third Coast Poetry Prize, and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize. Her poems and essays are featured in a number of journals, including Academy of American Poets, Adroit, THRUSH, BuzzFeed, and VIDA. She served as poetry editor for Winter Tangerine Review and Union Station, among others. She is a copy editor working across genres, and has edited numerous award-winning books. Verlee is a writing and performance coach who performs and facilitates workshops at schools, theatres, libraries, bookstores, and dive bars across North America. She collects tattoos, kisses Rottweilers, and believes in you.

Check out her PBS Newshour”Brief But Spectacular” take on destigmatizing mental illness through poetry.

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