Here we look at the way seven writers share, reveal and teach us about mental health through their poetry

Just like artists effortlessly pick and mix colour on a canvas to create something beautiful, so do poets. Choosing and rearranging words on a page, they give us the language we didn’t know we needed to describe our inner world.

Creatives and poets are renowned for using the subject of mental illness in their work, often because they’ve experienced it themselves and need a way to make sense of it. We all have our own ways of processing and coping with difficult times, and for creatives, this often involves putting words, shapes, music or colour onto paper.

Here we want to look specifically at poetry and with so many incredible poems out there on the subject, it’s difficult to choose which ones to share. The ones we’ve listed here were picked because they have an underlying lesson all of us can learn from, including understanding the realities of relationships with mental illness in tow, the power of community and how resilient we are. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do.

1. The owl and the chimpanzee

By Jo Camacho.

The owl and the chimpanzee went to sea
In a beautiful boat called The Mind
The owl was sensible, clever and smart
The chimp was a little behind
The owl made decisions, based on fact
And knew where to steer its ship
The chimp reacted a little too fast
And often the boat would tip
The waves would come and crash aboard
The chimp would start to cry
Large tears would roll right down his face
Afraid that he would die
The chimp and the owl would wrestle at night
When the world was quiet and still
The chimp would jump up and rock the boat
And the boat would start to fill
Then the owl stepped in and grabbed a pail
And started to empty it out
And the chimp would start to get quite cross
And would often scream and shout
The battle continued night after night
Until the chimp started to see
That if it let the owl take control
A more peaceful night it would be

This poem by clinical hypnotherapist and psychotherapist Jo Camacho beautifully articulates the internal battle many of us face when the more primitive part of our brain (the chimp brain) takes control. The wise owl within all of us is seen here fighting with the chimp who seems determined to make the situation worse, despite its fears of the situation worsening.

What this poem teaches us: Internal conflict is normal and human. If we can learn to control our primitive, scared brain more often and listen to our inner owl, we’ll enjoy a more peaceful journey.

2. Poem (unnamed) from The Sun and Her Flowers

By Rupi Kaur

when the world comes crashing at your feet
it’s okay to let others
help pick up the pieces
if we’re present to take part in your happiness
when your circumstances are great
we are more than capable
of sharing your pain

- community

Poet and illustrator Rupi Kaur has tackled a variety of mental health topics in her books Milk and Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers, including sexual assault, toxic relationships, addiction and depression. There are so many to choose from that teach us about the realities of living with these things taking up space in our lives, but this one felt like a timely reminder to include.

What this poem teaches us: That it’s OK to ask for help. Those in our community care about us and are happy to support us if we let them in - we were never meant to do this alone.

3. OCD

By Neil Hilbon

The first time I saw her…
Everything in my head went quiet.
All the tics, all the constantly refreshing images just disappeared.
When you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, you don’t really get quiet moments.
Even in bed, I’m thinking:
Did I lock the doors? Yes.
Did I wash my hands? Yes.
Did I lock the doors? Yes.
Did I wash my hands? Yes.
But when I saw her, the only thing I could think about was the hairpin curve of her lips..
Or the eyelash on her cheek —
the eyelash on her cheek —
the eyelash on her cheek.

(Extract - see full poem performed below)

Slam poet Neil Hilbon is known for his passionate performances and knack for expressing the realities of living with mental illness. In this poem Neil describes falling in love, being heartbroken after a relationship ends and how OCD accompanies them on every step of the journey.

What this poem teaches us: That everyone deserves love and that being in a relationship with someone with mental illness can be trying and requires a great deal of patience and understanding. Find out more about how you can support your partner with their mental health.  

4. The Fury of Rainstorms

By Anne Sexton

The rain drums down like red ants,
each bouncing off my window.
The ants are in great pain
and they cry out as they hit
as if their little legs were only
stitched on and their heads pasted.
And oh they bring to mind the grave,
so humble, so willing to be beat upon
with its awful lettering and
the body lying underneath
without an umbrella.
Depression is boring, I think
and I would do better to make
some soup and light up the cave.

Poet Anne Sexton was known for her ‘confessional’ verse, getting personal in her writing and baring her soul to her readers. Here she eloquently describes the effect her depression had on her and adds a touch of lightness at the end as she reminds all of us to light up the cave.

What this poem teaches us: That depression can feel different to everybody and even boring at times. And that doing what we can to light up our cave through self-care can help us survive the darkness.

5. Resilience

By Alex Elle

look at you.
still standing
after being
knocked down
and thrown out.

look at you.
still growing
after being
picked and plucked
and prodded out of
your home.

look at you.
still dancing
and singing
after being
defeated and disassembled.

look at you, love.
still here and hopeful
after it all.

Author and wellness consultant Alex Elle often shares her words of wisdom through social media, owning a rare insight into the true nature of the human spirit. In this poem Alex is in awe of how resilient we can be, despite the experiences we may endure.

What this poem teaches us: That we’re more powerful than we know. That resilience is part and parcel of being human and no matter how tough things get, we can almost always find the power we need to come back.

6. Men speak up

By Akin Olunsanya

My soul is burdened, seems like I’m in the dark
And my mind, overwhelmed
A man with great pride
Had all, lost all,
Everything in me yelling for help
Remember growing up
as a young male,
the world telling me
Always be strong
Now I’m down on life’s luck
A man going on to thirty four
With no navigation to weather the storm
Strange, now I’m losing my sleep
No more appetite to eat
My once good health
Failing me
Anxiety. Depression, bipolar personality disorder,
Schizophrenia …
C’mon fellas,
These are very real
My admonishment therefore is to men:
Let’s all speak up, rise, seek help
Get counselling, embrace therapy
Know that MIND cares

Written for Mind as part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2018, this poem by Akin Olunsanya asks men to stop ignoring the reality of mental illness and find the courage to speak up.

What this poem teaches us: That mental illness has no bias. It doesn’t care how tough or strong you are, it doesn’t care about your age, race or gender. It can still affect you and it’s OK to reach out for support. Find out how we can all make a change to support men’s mental health.

7. When the fat girl gets skinny

By Blythe Baird

If you develop an eating disorder when you are already thin to begin with,
you go to the hospital.
If you develop an eating disorder when you are not thin to begin with,
you are a success story.
So when I evaporated, of course everyone congratulated me on getting healthy.
Girls at school who never spoke to me before, stopped me in the hallway to ask how I did it.
I say “I’m sick”. They say “No, you’re an inspiration!”
How could I not fall in love with my illness?
With becoming the kind of silhouette people are supposed to fall in
love with?
Why would I ever stop being hungry, when anorexia was the
most interesting thing about me?
So lucky it is now, to be boring.
The way looking at an apple and seeing only an apple, not sixty, or
half an hour sit-ups is boring.
My story may not be as exciting as it used to,
but at least there is nothing left to count.

(Extract - see full poem performed below)

Blythe Baird is an award-winning poet who is best known for tackling topics such as sexual assault, sexuality, mental illness and eating disorder recovery. As well as describing with painful accuracy how easily eating disorders can take hold, here Blythe notes the difference between the way society reacts when someone already thin is suffering and when someone not already thin is suffering.

What this poem teaches us: That eating disorders can affect anyone and that society needs to understand it is always an illness, no matter the size of someone’s body. Learn more about common misconceptions about eating disorders.

Self-expression and creativity can support us when it comes to processing and coping with mental health problems, but sometimes we all need a helping hand. If you’re looking for support, enter your postcode below to find a therapist near you.