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Online course

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.

Free:

  • Access to the course for its duration + 14 days, regardless of when you join (this includes access to articles, videos, peer review steps, quizzes)
  • No certificate

Upgraded:

  • Unlimited access to the course, for as long as it exists on FutureLearn (this includes access to articles, videos, peer review steps, quizzes)
  • A Statement of Participation when you complete over half the course

Find out more

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

Why join the course?

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.”

This free online course will explore how enjoying literature can help us to endure life.

Taking Johnson’s phrase as a starting point, the course will consider how poems, plays and novels can help us understand and cope with times of deep emotional strain. The reading load will be flexible, and you will have the opportunity to exchange ideas and feelings via the online discussions with other learners.

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”?

Leading you through the course and readings will be:

  • Dr Paula Byrne: One of the world’s leading Jane Austen experts, who conceived of this course while researching how Austen’s novels were prescribed to victims of shellshock in World War 1.

  • Professor Jonathan Bate: A critic, biographer and reviewer; Man Booker Prize judge; and author of a prize-winning biography of the poet, John Clare, and Being Shakespeare - the hit one-man play for Simon Callow. Jonathan is also the Lead Educator on the immensely successful Shakespeare and his World FutureLearn course.

Along the way, you’ll also hear from doctors, who offer a medical perspective on the conditions discussed in the course, as well as from a range people who have turned to literature at moments of crisis, including such well-known figures as Melvyn Bragg, Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry.

You’ll have the opportunity to share your own experiences, discover new texts, and take part in activities that explore the relationship between reading and wellbeing. Start now by following the link to Professor Jonathan Bate and Dr Paula Byrne’s article for the FutureLearn blog ‘Can you find solace in a sonnet?’, where you can reflect on the calming and reassuring powers of a short poem.

Come and join the conversation.

Learner comments

We have had such a hugely positive reaction to the course. Here are just a few of the wonderful comments learners have said about the course so far:

“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!” - Susan Perry

“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.” - Dr. Rachael Turner

“I have have enjoyed this course immensely. It’s given me a new outlook on life and even the courage to read new and exciting things and to even enjoy a wider range of materials I’ve ever thought of. A really wonderful experience and I’ve loved the feedback and comments from fellow course members.” - Amanda Bedwell

Skip to 0 minutes and 16 secondsThis 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 secondsWe 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.

When would you like to start?

  • Date to be announced

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.

We suggest that this course should take around 4 hours per week to complete, but this is a guideline figure only, and will vary depending on how much time you spend in engaging in the course discussions, and on whether or not you choose to read any of the longer course texts in their entirety.

All of the texts that we discuss during the course will be provided online in the weekly course materials. We’ll be focusing on poems, as well as on some short extracts from plays and novels, so there’s no need to do any reading in advance. However, if you are interested in finding out more about some of the texts before the course begins, you could have a look at one or two of the following:

  • Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
  • Rachel Kelly, Black Rainbow
  • Melvyn Bragg, Grace and Mary
  • Mark Haddon, Polar Bears
  • William Shakespeare, King Lear, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus

You might also want to get hold of a poetry anthology, or browse The Poetry Foundation website to find some poems that you find calming or that you can relate to.

Why do learners love 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!

Susan Perry

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.

Dr Rachael Turner

Who will you learn with?

Jonathan Bate

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.

Paula Byrne

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 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.

Supporters

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Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join: