A poem a day on World Mental Health Day    
Wed, 30 September 2020

“Every poem is a momentary stay against the confusion of the world.” - Robert Frost

“If you’re feeling blue or anxious on World Mental Health Day [10 October 2020], that might be a perfectly normal response considering the circumstances,” says Dr Dawn Garisch, a Cape Town GP, award-winning author, and celebrated writing teacher who founded the Life Righting Collective. “We live in extremely disturbing times, so if you’re having a hard time, it’s completely understandable. You might even benefit from medication or therapy, but this doesn’t make you abnormal!”

What else does the good doctor recommend for this malady? Part of the advice -- and, to be sure, she takes her own medicine -- is to turn to poetry, both written and read. “A poem a day might (or might not) keep the doctor away, but it certainly will help you feel more connected,” she says.

Let’s also ponder momentarily how society frames people who don’t fit in. Highly creative people are frequently stuck in boxes labelled: odd, eccentric, mad, deranged and other insults unfit for print. In our recent past, mental health was excluded from discussion in polite society. Those showing signs of mental suffering were judged as demon-possessed or bewitched, stupid or sinful. These unkind and misinformed attitudes did nothing to help or heal, adding only to shame and isolation.

With global progress in research and education about mental health issues, people now know about “neurodivergence” and how different brains process, store and use information differently. Hopefully, this leads to a more inclusive society with policies that welcome and support people who enrich the world with their colourful personalities, original thinking and creative endeavours.

Another question Dr Garisch often asks her medical students is: “How much pathology is not actually illness at all, but a comprehensible and sane response to an insane world?” D.H. Lawrence’s poem ‘On Healing’ answers that question.

On Healing
I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly
      that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance,
long, difficult repentance, realisation of life’s mistake, and
      the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.
~ D. H Lawrence

For South Africans emerging from the wake of COVID-19, poetry offers a way to process the troubles brought on by lockdown. Especially for those who don’t have access to therapy, the cathartic benefits of writing can be hugely beneficial. The empty page gives one a place to express feelings. No matter how dire the situation is, writing brings a “freeing” of the self from the “endless repetitions”. Dr Garisch says, “Patients who write poetry frequently find their symptoms are relieved. By getting something off your chest metaphorically, you can quite literally have your chest pain dissolve.”

Let’s go out on a limb and say that if you’re feeling fragile, distressed, anxious or hopeless, that might be an appropriate response, and a sign of your health. If so, you will probably benefit from reading and writing poetry too! Try finding a poem that speaks to you in the AVBOB Poetry Library. Then try to write one that might speak to somebody else feeling what you are feeling.

The AVBOB Poetry Competition offers you a chance to record and make sense of your personal experience. The judges hope you will pick up a pen today and write your own poem. May your silence be unlocked and your voice fill the page. May you find yourself feeling stronger, clearer and more hopeful. May your poem be the good medicine that cures some of your emotional pain this World Mental Health day.