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Poetry on the Couch

by Dr. Perie Longo, Registered Poetry Therapist


Poetry therapy is gaining ground as a way to treat a range of mental illness, from schizophrenia to depression to substance abuse. In therapy, reading poems by other authors provides a structure for patients to evoke associations, connect with their emotions and realize they are not alone in experiencing such feelings. In their own poetry, patients find an outlet for subconscious thoughts or images and express what is difficult to articulate.

Like other art therapies, such as dance, drama and visual arts, poetry therapy is based on the premise that creativity is healing. Instead of color or music, poetry therapy uses language, imagery and rhythm to articulate emotion. Talking directly about emotional problems can be difficult for some people. Poetry gives people a structure and format with which to do so.


Sessions might begin by reading a poem with a specific theme: love, loss, hope, abandonment. A favorite poems is Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese." One line reads "Tell me about your despair and I'll tell you mine," which invites patients to discuss difficult emotions or problems.


During the second half of the session, patients write their own poetry, read it aloud and discuss it. The emphasis is on the process of self-expression, not the literary quality of the poem.


For some poetry therapy is a turning point after years of unsuccessful traditional therapy and medication. For Cheryl and Jennifer, finding poetry was a long-needed balm. Both suffered from depression since young adulthood and survived multiple suicide attempts. For Cheryl, 57, poetry inspired her to write her true feelings without censoring herself like she did in other therapy sessions. For Jennifer, 33, after a life in and out of psychiatric wards diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and depression, poetry enabled her to communicate more clearly than she could when simply talking.



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About the Author


Perie Longo, PhD, LMFT, in private practice, and Registered Poetry Therapist, has been conducting Poetry for Healing groups for over twenty years for Hospice and Sanctuary Psychiatric Centers in Santa Barbara, as well as other agencies. She is a past president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy (www.poetrytherapy.org) and a Master/Mentor Supervisor for those seeking certification in the field. For contact information, visit her website: www.perielongo.com or phone (805) 687-1619.





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