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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds So Rachel, can you just begin by talking about your own experiences of having depression? Yes. It happened very suddenly, 1997. So rewind, we just had the Blair landslide. And things seemed to be going well. I’m working in the newsroom at the Times, and I’ve got two small children. My husband’s working in financial services. And I don’t consider myself depressed at all. But I am an anxious person, and I’m juggling a lot. And then one night, it’s a Wednesday, I can’t get to sleep. And with the insomnia begins to come some rather alarming physical symptoms. And I don’t know what’s happening, but my heart rate speeds up. I begin to feel rather nauseous.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds I’m not actually sick, but I begin to feel nauseous. My head starts to clench, and I start to have a sort of really appalling kind of headache, as if bees are stinging inside my skull. And I’m getting more and more anxious. And I have this very alarming sensation that I’m falling. And I just don’t know what’s happening. And then my worries are whizzing around. I’m thinking, well, if I don’t get to sleep, I won’t be able to get up. And I won’t go to work. And if I can’t get to work, then you’re going to lose the house. I can’t lose the house. And the children taken into care. And it’s getting worse and worse and worse.

Skip to 1 minute and 26 seconds It’s a bit like a kind of skater, and the marks in the ice are getting deeper and deeper. But I think, OK. You know, I’m a good functioning, high– you know, I can cope. So I get up the next morning. I think, right. Refasten activity to its normal pattern. I’ll breakfast at breakfast time, lunch at lunchtime, and dine at dinnertime, and I’ll sleep at sleep time, and I’ll be fine. Back on track. Same thing happens. Insomnia comes. Symptoms don’t go away. If anything, they get worse. And by Friday, I’m in a psychiatric hospital. And blow me down, I’m told I’m having a depressive episode when I thought I was having a heart attack.

Skip to 2 minutes and 0 seconds So for me, my depression stemmed from high anxiety, over-trading, doing too much, too many worries. And it came and presented in this very dramatic physical way. And actually, I’ve since discovered that it can present in that way. For some people, it can be very low mood. They can’t get up. But for others and for me, it came from this sort of heightened anxiety. And what was the worst point? Do you remember a point that you felt very desperate, or was there a moment for you? Oh, yes. No. I mean, the physical pain was so great that I was suicidal. And I was suicidal not because I didn’t have a nice life.

Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds I had a kind of exciting, interesting life, and I loved my life as a journalist, and our children. But I was in this terrible physical pain. And in hospital, they were trying to control it with sedatives, and then in due course, antidepressants, and just to bring me down from this very heightened state. And at that point, I was suicidal, as I say, because of the pain. And I used to just lie there screaming, saying ‘I want to die, I want to die.’ And I do remember both that moment, and also there was a turning point when I changed that story. What was the turning point?

Skip to 3 minutes and 11 seconds Well, what happened was I was in hospital, as I say, in this very extreme sort of physical pain. And I had my mother. I’m holding hands with my mother on one side and my husband on the other. And I was just screaming, this ‘I want to die, I want to die.’ And my mother, very gently and quietly, said this line, which I later discovered was from ‘Corinthians.’ And as you know, the Bible’s sort of poetry. And she said, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee– my strength is made perfect in weakness.’ And she just kept repeating this rather sort of softly, like a mantra. ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness.’

Skip to 3 minutes and 45 seconds And it was the first stirring, you might say, of positive will, because I thought– hitherto, I’d have thought, well, what on earth is the point this? This is just this unredeeming blackness, terror, horror. And then I suddenly thought, well, maybe I’ll emerge stronger. My strength will be made perfect in weakness. So that line was literally a lifeline. And I started saying it with my mother. So instead of screaming ‘I want to die,’ very softly we’d say together, ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ And so that was the beginning of kind of what you might call positive– a different story in my head.

Skip to 4 minutes and 27 seconds So you talked about the moment when your mother was almost chanting a line of poetry as it being a turning point for you. Was it the rhythm of that phrase, or was it to do with the words? Or was it to do with both those things? What do you think it was? Yeah. No, definitely. I think the sort of soothing sound of it, the rhythm of it, definitely was important. And I think it was also the context in which it happened, because it brought me back to a safe place when I was a child and my mother was comforting me. And I think there’s something very instinctive, that children do love poetry. You see it in the playground.

Skip to 5 minutes and 5 seconds They’re doing chants. They’re doing rhymes. And that was a sort of return to that. So the sound of it and the rhythm of it was incredibly important. But obviously it also encapsulated a really positive message that there was some point to this. And I think if you suffer depression, you think, what is the point of this? There’s nothing positive about it at all. And I think that was a real turning point, this idea that I would become stronger through the experience. You know, sometimes when somebody repeats, repeats– Yeah. You know, that line– I love Julian of Norwich. ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’ Yes.

Skip to 5 minutes and 40 seconds There’s something about just repeating that that I find personally very comforting, the repetition. Your mum kept saying the same line. Yes. It’s like being sort of verbally stroked, in a way. The words sort of almost stroke you. And I think the other thing is that if you’re very, very unwell, and you’re suffering a severe depressive episode, as I was, and I was in hospital, you couldn’t possibly read a whole book. And you probably couldn’t read a whole poem. You probably couldn’t read a verse. But you might be able to absorb a line. So it’s almost like it’s the thing that you can manage at that point. It’s accessible. Yeah.

Skip to 6 minutes and 13 seconds So Rachel, at one point in your book, Black Rainbow, which is about the healing power of words, there was a moment when either your mother or your husband actually physically gave a poem to your friends in order for them to help understand what you were going through. And I thought it was a very powerful moment, because sometimes we do feel very alone when we suffer from depression. Can you remember which poem that was? Yeah. So it’s Anne Sexton, an American poet, who did suffer terrible depression, and did very sadly commit suicide. So it wouldn’t have been a good poem to give to someone suffering from depression themselves.

Skip to 6 minutes and 48 seconds Very handy shortcut to give to people to try and explain what’s going on, because there’s still a lot of ignorance around how depression can present itself, especially if it presents itself in this very sort of alarming physical way. So it’s called ‘The Sickness Unto Death.’ And what struck me when I read it when I was better, as it were, and I think what struck my husband and my mother in terms of it being a very helpful poem, is that it did describe some of my symptoms– particularly this very frightening sensation of falling. So it’s got a line in the poem. It says, ‘I’ve got to have something to hold onto.’

Skip to 7 minutes and 21 seconds And actually, that comes up again in Virginia Woolf, in Mrs. Dalloway, that the soldier that’s suffering from post-traumatic stress again has this sensation of falling. Such a terrifying feeling. And so I think it sounds so sort of crazy. And I think there is a feeling that perhaps I am going crazy. And I think it was extraordinarily helpful to feel that there was somebody else who’d suffered a similar kind of experience, and had put it into the most extraordinary poetry, which was better than any words I could come up with to describe what was happening.

Skip to 7 minutes and 53 seconds Because sometimes I think one of the things that we’re interested in in this course is the idea that when you can’t find the words, other poets can and have. And sometimes hundreds of years ago, but they describe how one feels, and there’s comfort in that. Who were the poets that you found helpful with your own experiences? Yeah. Well, gosh, so much there which resonates. But I think that sense of connection across the ages is kind of incredibly powerful. And there’s a poem by Rumi. I don’t know if you know him. Some Persian mystic, 13th century. And I found that astonishing, because his poem was called ‘The Guest House.’

Skip to 8 minutes and 33 seconds And it’s about welcoming in, actually, depression and darkness, and sort of developing a kind of acceptance as the first step to recovery, which actually medically we know is a really good idea. But what was extraordinary about that was that he’s 13th century, yet his voice is so modern. And it so brilliantly described my experience that I just felt I’m not alone. Hurray. You know, there’s somebody there from the 13th century. So that’s Rumi. And I think the next poet that really, again, I had this sort of electrifying sense of connection and not feeling alone, because I think the loneliness of depression is really frightening. You just think there’s nobody else who understands.

Skip to 9 minutes and 17 seconds And so the next person who really spoke to me was George Herbert, the 17th century poet. And again, that sense that a hand literally kind of reaching out. I felt like there was a hand across the centuries. And this was part of the human condition, and I wasn’t alone. But to also particularly Herbert, and indeed Rumi, they’re poets with messages of hope, and that you will get better. Were they depressives? Do you think George Herbert was a depressive? I think that he wouldn’t have been diagnosed at the time, but he obviously did have very dark periods.

Skip to 9 minutes and 54 seconds And to my mind, an awful lot of his poems brilliantly replicate what I was experiencing in hospital because it’s about the two kind of clashing voices in your head. So if you take a poem like ‘Love,’ ‘Love bade me welcome.’ So you take the first verse, and it says, ‘Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin,’ I thought, oh my god, that’s what I’m feeling– ‘guilty of dust and sin.’ I’ve got this nice life. I’ve got a lovely husband. I’ve got two children, a nice job. But I’m suffering this thing called depression. And I felt so much shame. I felt so ghastly as well. And yet, there’s Herbert saying ‘guilty of dust and sin.’

Skip to 10 minutes and 31 seconds I thought, that is the best description of depression I’ve come across. But in that poem– it’s only three verses long– he comes up with a second voice, which is the voice of love, and forgiveness, and compassion. So you’ve got very kind of guilty, negative voice, which is like the voice of depression in your head. And he gives you another voice. And he gives you this voice of love. So ‘Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back, guilty of dust and sin.’ And then we get the second voice. ‘Quick-eyed love, observing me grow slack from my first entrance in, sweetly questioned if I lacked anything.’

Skip to 11 minutes and 4 seconds And I think having had a lot of therapy, and I’m a big believer in therapy, a lot of therapists work with clashing voices in your head, and how can you become more self-compassionate, and gentler to yourself, and gentler on others. And that’s what Herbert does in that poem for me. And the two voices come through to the end. And, I mean, to me, again, it was an extraordinary poem when I was unwell, because in fact, in the poem, love is trying to get the guilty depressed person just to sit and share a meal. It is, obviously, a religious poem, and a different interpretation would be it sort of leading to communion. But I didn’t read it in a religious way.

Skip to 11 minutes and 52 seconds So they last verse, just to run through it, but the– well, I can’t quite get the last verse. But the last line is, ‘So I did sit and eat.’ And that was huge for me, because what I wanted when I was unwell, I didn’t want anything very flash. I just wanted the simple pleasure of being well enough to sit down, to eat, to be back around the kitchen table with my family. And yet, there was Herbert in the 17th century, mirroring the same sort of dialogue. And I thought, I can’t believe it– but again, done with the most extraordinary language, more beautifully than anything I could ever say.

Skip to 12 minutes and 32 seconds So Rachel, in your book, you write about poems that gave you hope. It’s very important to you, to your message, that poetry can be very elevating. And you cite Emily Dickinson, who’s a poet that our Learners will be familiar with. And there’s a wonderful poem. You write about hope being like feathers. Yes. Yes. It’s one of my favourites, actually. And I use it all the time, actually, especially now. You know, I still have moments. And it’s called ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers.’ And I’ve got a bit of a thing about little birds as sort of symbols of hope. And there’s quite a lot of poetry, actually, that sort of feeds into that. There’s another lovely one.

Skip to 13 minutes and 14 seconds I think it’s DH Lawrence, called ‘The Darkling Thrush.’ But it was linked in so a lot of my recovery I also put down to sort of gardening, and being outside, and reconnecting with nature– because I think one of the characteristics of depression is that you’re very inward-looking. At its worst, you might say narcissistic. But it’s always kind of looking in. And I knew I was getting better when I could sort of reconnect and sort of start to look outwards. And the Dickinson poem, as I say, is about focusing on a sort of tiny detail of nature, which is this little robin, I think it is.

Skip to 13 minutes and 48 seconds You see, what I think poetry can do for us– because I so believe in what you’re saying about the power, the healing power, of nature. Yeah. But what I think what poetry can do, if you can’t get out into a garden, you can read a poem that can transport you in your head into a snowy landscape. You could read a John Clare poem and you could be– or you could be on a mountain. And I think it’s lifesaving for somebody who actually can’t get out into the green. If you’re living in a– if you’re living in a city, a poem can– would you agree with that? Would you agree that a poem can transport you to that place of calm?

Skip to 14 minutes and 20 seconds Completely. So if you take someone like John Clare or Yeats, there’s a kind of attentiveness to detail, and a kind of power of an image which is so brilliantly evoked and so precise, that it immediately conjures, as you say, the place in your head. And so, as you say, if you’re in a hospital bed, or you’re so unwell you can’t get out of bed, you can go there in your head, and you can find a sort of moment’s kind of comfort and release of literally escaping and being in a different place. And, you know, I think something like ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is just brilliant for that. That line about ‘the bee-loud glade.’ Oh, I just love that line.

Skip to 15 minutes and 1 second I can just– bee, loud, glade. Three words. And we’re not sitting here at The Shard. We’re in a ‘bee-loud glade.’ I mean, it’s an incredible image that just transports us. And funny enough, I was working with– I was briefly in hospital recently for a physical matter, nothing serious. But the lady on the ward was very distressed.

Skip to 15 minutes and 24 seconds And it was about 3:00 in the morning. And I sort of thought, OK. And I got up, and a bit bossy, I’m ashamed to admit. I had my drip with me. And I marched across. And I was just about to say, come on, please. You know, we all need to get some sleep now. And she was obviously in a lot of distress. And we just sat there at three in the morning, and we did a few poems together. And we did actually do ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ And she just calmed down. And by the end of it, you know, the groaning stopped, the ward was quiet, and we got some sleep.

Skip to 15 minutes and 54 seconds And I think it’s just because, you know, a hospital ward’s a grim place to be, and there’s nothing green, and there’s no sense of ‘the bee-loud glade.’ But she got it. She had a place, a safe place, to go in her head. Yeah. That’s wonderful. Yeah, I must say, I did feel very pleased. I thought, oh, it does work. It’s not just me. Does work. I do need it. I mean, I know your book, you talk about poetry saved you from depression. And I think there would be cynical people that say how could that possibly be the case? I mean, how? Yeah. And yet, you passionately believe this, don’t you? Well, the thing is that I did lots of things.

Skip to 16 minutes and 32 seconds And I do believe a kind of holistic approach. You have got to do lots of things. You got to look after your mental health like you’d look after your physical health. So I don’t think anyone would say it’s just poetry. So I’m careful of what I eat, and try and exercise. And we know trying to help other people is very good for your mental health. So there’s lots of good strategies you can take up, and I try and do them. But the fact is what I come back to is that if you’re in hospital, and the drugs aren’t working, which was the position for me, and there’s nothing else– because at that point, you can’t do therapy.

Skip to 17 minutes and 6 seconds You’re not well enough. You certainly can’t go for a walk. You’re not going to be able to go for a run. You’re just so unwell and there’s nothing else. At that point, to me, poetry is the lifeline– because I didn’t know what else there is, because nothing’s worked. The drug’s not working. You’re feeling suicidal. And yet with one line, something extraordinary happens, and somehow you begin to shift the chemistry in your head. So that’s why I’m such a passionate believer. So it’s almost when it’s worse, at its most extreme, that it’s at its most valuable. And I do use it all the time as sort of maintenance to keep that ‘old black dog’ on a firm leash.

Skip to 17 minutes and 48 seconds And it’s absolutely my medicine every day. And I now work, as you know, with other people. And I think others find it incredibly helpful as well. I was going to ask you about that. Can you talk a little bit about your work with other people, where you’re trying to encourage people who are depressed to read poetry. And what sort of results have you had? What sort of feedback have you had? Well, what’s been incredible is that– I don’t know. OK. From my point of view, I feel I benefit incredibly and enormously from working with small groups. So the way it works is I work alongside Mind, Depression Alliance, other charities.

Skip to 18 minutes and 28 seconds And normally, they have a kind of existing support group, people who are suffering from anxiety and depression. And they’ve tried lots of approaches. And then I go in, and I run a four-part poetry workshop. And what we do is we sit around the table– there’s normally ten of us, something like that– and we share five or six poems. And it works in an arc from dark to light. So we’ve got, as it were, the first poems that might describe despair. And the next poems that might help you begin to feel that sense of hope that we were talking about begin to help you imagine that there might be another story.

Skip to 18 minutes and 59 seconds The third one would be this sense of reconnecting with the bigger world, so possibly quite a few nature poems, back to your Yeats, or the little robin in the Emily Dickinson. and then the last set of poems are poems that might help you through ordinary life, just the challenges. What Freud called ordinary unhappy life. So it’s a four-part series. And it’s anecdotal in the sense that I get very lovely enthusiastic responses– not from everybody, but from enough people to make it feel very worthwhile. And the thing that I’ve been most pleased about, and I’m just so over-excited, can hardly say this, but quite a few of my groups continue to meet.

Skip to 19 minutes and 39 seconds And they’re continuing to meet, and they’re continuing to bring the poems that are making a difference to them. So I felt that is a result, that they are using poetry in their lives. So that’s incredibly exciting. And the other thing that’s very exciting is that initially, I was suggesting this as possibly a slightly off-beam idea. And the charities are coming to me now, because they’re getting feedback from previous groups saying– It works. –this has made a big difference. It works. What I really loved about your book and your choices of poems is that you go from, for instance, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ which I think is a beautiful song. Yeah. In your book, it becomes like– it’s a poem.

Skip to 20 minutes and 15 seconds It’s not the Rogers and– ‘When you walk through the storm hold your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark.’ And you talk about that being as very hopeful. And I think poetry, it encompasses a whole range– song, nursery rhymes. You mentioned bits from the Bible. It doesn’t matter, does it? What works, works. No. I mean, I think I’m very lucky, because I never– I never really studied it. Well, I did English at school, but I didn’t– I’m not scared of it, because I’m not frightened that I don’t understand it or it’s not relevant. I just connect with something that speaks to me.

Skip to 20 minutes and 51 seconds And I’m not worried about how is the, I don’t know, the personification or assonance working here. I mean, I’m interested in a way technically, of how the poet ‘s been so clever to give it that incredible punch that it hits me here. But I’m much more about experiencing it, how it feels. And in my groups, I’m not trying to lecture people or say– if there’s something that might be difficult to understand, we might go into it. But it’s much more how it resonates spiritually and in your heart. And as you say, it could come from anywhere. It could come from a football chant. People share things from all over. A line from a novel.

Skip to 21 minutes and 33 seconds I mean, obviously prose can have an incredible poetic line. I love that line from Middlemarch about unhistoric acts and make a difference in small acts of kindness. That’s almost like a kind of a mantra or a poem. Some of the mantras. You know, ‘This, too, will pass.’ I mean, it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. And I really encourage people. Sometimes even a tweet, or a rap song, or a lyric. You know, who knows where it’s coming from. But I’m interested in that sort of physical effect it has on you, really. A visceral sort of– Yeah. Yeah. It just kind of– just sort of– I think it just, as I say, it almost physically changes you. And I think I get that.

Skip to 22 minutes and 13 seconds And what I love when I get it in the group. I had one. I was working with Mind recently in Hammersmith, my group there. And the lady, we read– I think it was the Rumi, ‘The Guest House.’ No, perhaps it wasn’t that. Which one was it? I’ll have to think. But the point was she was reading it, because that’s another thing. People read out the poems. And I think there’s something very powerful about finding your voice and reading the poem. And then you’ve not found a way to find the words, but the poem can give you that. And she read out this poem, and she just started crying.

Skip to 22 minutes and 48 seconds And she said, ‘do you know, I’ve seen social workers, psychiatrists, mental health workers, nurses, doctor.’ She says, ‘I’ve never felt understood in 23 years. And this poem is what it’s like to be me.’ And it was just such a wonderful moment, because they go away, or the group disperses– they’ve all got eight poems to take away with them. No-one can take them away, and learn by heart. I always just think that’s such a great phrase, isn’t it? I do. I do. Learn by heart. It’s in your heart. It’s here. It’s where it really matters. I have to try and think which poem that was, but anyway, it was just a magical moment. The power of poetry. Yeah.

Skip to 23 minutes and 28 seconds I’m quite interested in the way that the ancients really interconnect mind and body. And then somehow, we’ve sort of historically lost that link. And I think what I’m interested in is saying the mind obviously affects the body. Physical pain. Yeah. You can have physical pain when you’re stressed. Have you had any thoughts about how the mind– Absolutely. So I think if you’re mentally tense, you’re physically tense. If you’re physically relaxed, you’re mentally relaxed. You can’t have one without the other. So one clever thing is to sort of approach the problem the other way around, which is if you can create some sort of physical relaxation. So mindfulness can be good with that, with the breathing.

Skip to 24 minutes and 8 seconds And as you say, poetry can feed into that. So I think there’s a really interesting connection between poetry mindfulness and this almost physicality of it, that it can just bring that cortisol and adrenaline down by some of the soothing qualities and the fact that it sort of relaxes– I see it in the groups, you sort of see, and I know it in myself. Just brings yourself down from those sort of anxiety, stress, and like that, because it’s changed the story in your head. So automatically, it sort of changes the story in your body. Anyway, I’m a huge– I think you’re absolutely right. The two are completely connected.

Skip to 24 minutes and 42 seconds And as you say, the ancients knew that, Apollo being the god of medicine and the god of poetry. So it goes way back. And there’s Benjamin Franklin setting up his hospital, and he prescribes reading as a cure for people. Aeschylus says ‘poetry is the medicine of the mind diseased.’ Lovely. There you go. Brilliant. Perfect. Absolutely brilliant. But what I’m excited about is that I feel that in terms of treatment for depression– so what tends to happen is you’ve got the psychiatrists. And hitherto, they’ve been very keen on the drugs, because that’s their expertise. And, you know, fantastic. There are times when you need the drugs. Then you’ve got the therapists, and they’re really keen on therapy. Again, I’ve used therapy.

Skip to 25 minutes and 22 seconds Good for them. You’ve got the mindfulness experts, and they’re very keen on mindfulness. And then you’ve got the people, the nutritionists keen on exercise and diet, and et cetera, et cetera. But what I’m really interested in is that I think that what people are beginning to realise across these various fields is that the most effective approach is pulling them together, and that poetry can be part of that. You know, the healing, lovely, back at Macbeth. You know, the ‘balm for hurt minds,’ as he describes sleep. ‘Balm for hurt minds.’ ‘Balm for hurt minds.’ Such a lovely phrase. What I’m finding– so I work quite a bit with the NHS. And what I’m finding is that they’re getting it now.

Skip to 26 minutes and 0 seconds They know that you need a quite– a holistic approach and lots of different ways of looking at it, because it’s a totality, depression and mental illness. It sort of affects everything. So in a way, you have to sort of come at it with everything. And that’s, to me, where sort of literature and poetry, it can be part of that mix. And I think it’s just electrifying that people are beginning to recognise that. And it’s beginning to happen, you know, because people can see that it works.

Discussing 'Black Rainbow' and depression with Rachel Kelly

In our conversation, the writer Rachel Kelly talks to us about her own experience of depression.

Although many people associate depression with symptoms such as low mood and lack of energy, for Rachel the condition manifested itself in very alarming and painful physical symptoms. Earlier in the week, Dr Andrew Schuman explained to us that anyone can be affected by depression, often quite unexpectedly, and this was precisely the situation for Rachel; her depression developed very suddenly, stemming from very high levels of anxiety and a busy, stressful lifestyle.

Rachel was very quickly hospitalised with her depression, and it was only through her mother’s calm, gentle repetition of a single line of verse, taken from the Bible, than she began to see any hope of recovery. Here, Rachel talks to us about how poetry has continued to act as a lifeline for her, and about how she has been working to share this lifeline with others through her poetry workshops.

You can find out more about Rachel’s writing and other work on her website.

During our conversation, Rachel mentions a number of poems. Where possible, we’ve provided links to these poems below.

  • Note: although Rachel attributes ‘The Darkling Thrush’ to D. H. Lawrence, the poem was actually written by Thomas Hardy. Rachel apologises for the misattribution.

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Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

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