• University of Warwick

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

Find out how poems, plays and novels can help us understand and cope with deep emotional strain in this free online course.

51,894 enrolled on this course

Find out how poems, plays and novels can help us understand and cope with deep emotional strain in this free online course.
  • Duration

    6 weeks
  • Weekly study

    4 hours

The great 18th century writer Dr Samuel Johnson, who suffered from severe bouts of depression, said “the only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life or better to endure it.”

Taking Johnson’s phrase as a starting point, this course considers how poems, plays and novels can help us understand and cope with times of deep emotional strain.

Along the way, you’ll hear from doctors, who offer a medical perspective, and from people who have turned to literature at moments of crisis, including such well-known figures as Melvyn Bragg, Mark Haddon, Sir Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry.

Skip to 0 minutes and 16 seconds This MOOC is called Literature and Mental Health, and I think it’s a unique course. I think, for me, literature is inspirational. It’s healing. It can help us not feel alone. It may have been written 400 years ago, and yet, it still speaks to me today. Literature provides a unique insight into other minds. You will be able to think afresh and gain new understand of some of the really difficult mental health questions that we all have to face. Each week takes a different theme, such as stress, dementia, heartbreak, bereavement, and then we built that week around poems that we think will be relevant, helpful. We get moving testimony from the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.

Skip to 1 minute and 6 seconds We also speak to the great actor Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry gave us a very moving interview. He loves poetry, and he talked to us about the ways in which poetry has helped him through bouts of depression. The doctors that we’re working with on the course are incredibly interested in the ways in which literature can be used for science and for medicine. We think that the kind of concentration provided by a short poem is of enormous value in stressful times.

Skip to 1 minute and 38 seconds We also have a range of other texts, though you don’t have to read the whole novel. We’ll have extracts up online. There will be reading lists, and there’ll be extra activities if you wanted to do more. So I’m seeing this as a very scalable, very flexible course. Learners become part of the community where you share experiences with others. It can be a genuine dialogue, not only between the past and the present, but also among the learners.

What topics will you cover?

Together, we’ll explore six themes:

  1. Stress: In poetry, the word “stress” refers to the emphasis of certain syllables in a poem’s metre. How might the metrical “stresses” of poetry help us to cope with the mental and emotional stresses of modern life?
  2. Heartbreak: Is heartbreak a medical condition? What can Sidney’s sonnets and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility teach us about suffering and recovering from a broken heart?
  3. Bereavement: The psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously proposed that there are five stages of grief. How might Shakespeare’s Hamlet and poems by Wordsworth and Hardy help us to think differently about the process of grieving?
  4. Trauma: PTSD or “shellshock” has long been associated with the traumatic experiences of soldiers in World War 1. How is the condition depicted in war poetry of the era? Can poems and plays offer us an insight into other sources of trauma, including miscarriage and assault?
  5. Depression and Bipolar: The writer Rachel Kelly subtitles her memoir Black Rainbow “how words healed me – my journey through depression”. Which texts have people turned to during periods of depression, and why? What can we learn from literature about the links between bipolar disorder and creativity?
  6. Ageing and Dementia: One of the greatest studies of ageing in English Literature is Shakespeare’s King Lear. Is it helpful to think about this play in the context of dementia? Why are sufferers of age-related memory loss often still able to recall the poems they have learned “by heart”?

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explore how poems, plays and novels can help us understand and cope with times of deep emotional strain.
  • Engage in leading research into mental health and wellbeing.
  • Develop confidence in exploring the different forms of literature and their impact on wellbeing.

Who is the course for?

This course is open to anyone with an interest in literature or mental health. No previous experience or qualifications are required. The reading load will be flexible, and you will have the opportunity to exchange ideas and feelings via the online discussions with other learners.

What do people say about this course?

"“I [have] loved this course, thank you. It has reminded me of the power of words to lift us up and that express emotions and conditions that can be hard to deal with. I have been inspired to read and write more poetry as a result. Thank you again!"

"Thoroughly enjoyed the course and found it really rewarding. Excellent content and food for thought. I can’t praise it highly enough. I’m now totally convinced about the impact literature can have on mental health. I know it will help more people in future - literature, art and music has a tremendous power to help healing and promote mental well-being. It is a lifeline and a wonderful coping mechanism. It’s been great to learn from and share experiences with all the delegates too."

Who will you learn with?

Shakespearean, biographer and critic, I am an Honorary Fellow at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Honorary Fellow in Creativity at Warwick Business School, and Provost of Worcester College Oxford.

Author of 5 Top Ten bestsellers: *Perdita*, *Mad World: Evelyn Waugh & the Secrets of Brideshead*, *The Real Jane Austen*, *Belle* & *Kick* (JFK's sister). Founder of ReLit bibliotherapy foundation.

Who developed the course?

The University of Warwick

The University of Warwick is forward-looking, entrepreneurial and globally connected. With new ways of thinking and achieving it stands out from its competitors as an inspiring place to study.

Endorsers and supporters

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