While not all of us want to admit it to the world, we as humans struggle with things every day. This can include mental health, trauma, relationships, self-love, and so much more. Part of why we refrain from sharing these struggles is because we fear judgment. Stigmas are imposed upon serious topics that we face on a day-to-day basis, so we fear owning up to them. But it is the silence that continues to cultivate these stigmas every day. What I’ve learned from interviewing mental health professionals and non-profit directors is that poetry can be a tool to break down those barriers to conversation.
What is a Stigma?
Defined by Merriam Webster, a stigma is “a mark of shame or discredit.” We associate guilt and negativity with sensitive topics that we have always believed to be shameful. These “shameful” topics are not inherently full of shame, but it is what we have internalized from society through family, friends, media, and other external sources.
On the first step to breaking stigmas, we can also see they are not inherently negative – they are also the part of flowers that helps collect pollen to reproduce. It is simply what we have allowed the normalized definition to become over time that creates a negative image.
Releasing Shame and Breaking Stigmas
I have already written a few blog posts surrounding mental health and poetry, especially how poetry has the power to help us heal and overcome struggles with our minds. However, part of that healing process comes from releasing that shame we hold within us for dealing with mental health issues. Think of the viral phrase going around social media platforms that reminds us “it is okay to not be okay.” By accepting what we are going through, however negative they may be, we are able to release some of that shame into the air to watch it dissipate.
That is how you break stigmas.
Once you read, watch, or hear someone accept that part of their identity, you tend to see lots of people come out of the woodwork to affirm that they too are going through the same thing. It starts a chain reaction, where more and more people publicly share their struggles with mental health and more and more people realizing it is a conversation they can have with people they care about.
Poetry & Mental Health
Where does poetry fit into this process of breaking stigmas?
Poetry is an art form that allows you to say so much between the explicit lines. Some people still fear being so outright and open about their mental health struggles but, by masking it with metaphors and allusions, they still are able to speak about difficult topics while feeling confident in doing so. Analyzing poems from Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, for instance, can help you see themes of depression or mental illness, but they are not always direct in saying so.
More than that, poetry allows you to come to terms with what you are facing by putting pen to paper instead of saying things aloud. It can be scary to speak up about topics that cause distress in your life or others but, by writing the thoughts down, you are affirming these issues you are dealing with and not letting them overrule your life. Most people speak of affirmations as positive mantras to keep your spirits high, but sometimes you do need to accept parts of your identity that are negative so you can take proactive measures to work through them.
What About Other Stigmatized Topics?
Mental health is not the only barrier that poetry can help overcome in the world of stigmas. Topics like chronic illness, trauma, and sexual violence are just a few of the things we fear bringing up for numerous reasons. But once those barriers are broken down, people feel more confident in sharing their voices with the world and helping others feel like they have the power to do the same. Think of the #MeToo movement, for instance. It is a wave, a chain reaction, that inspires others with similar experiences to speak up for themselves and for those who still lack the confidence to do so.
Where Can I Learn More?
To read some of the interviews and research I conducted around breaking stigmas with poetry, check out chapter 10 in my new book, Poetic Potential: Sparking Change & Empowerment Through Poetry, available wherever books are sold.
To learn more about some contemporary poets shining the spotlight on mental health, check out this resource.
For anyone struggling with mental health, here are some resources: