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Poetry expresses what it is to be human – it’s therapy for the soul | Adam O’Riordan

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Sharing poetry with young people in a hospital’s secure unit brought home to me how it can help lift us out of our experience and contribute to better mental health

Drive north out of Manchester through Cheetham Hill’s wholesale district and on through the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods and eventually you will arrive at Prestwich hospital. For several years a programme called Rise (Reading In Secure Environments) has been bringing writers in to work with patients in just such secure environments, that vaguely Orwellian description for prisons, secure hospitals and young offender institutions.

A few years ago, I spent an afternoon with patients at Prestwich hospital’s secure unit; young people, by and large, many of whom were there because of violent crimes. The room was small and cramped and the atmosphere, to begin with, was tense. The patient to carer ratio was about two to one. Whatever their history or diagnosis, whatever they had done or had done to them, being read to afforded every person in that room a few moments of respite. It even prompted some of the patients to share their own poems. The benefits of such exchanges for all involved have been discussed in recent years at a series of conferences at the British Library run by the Liverpool-based charity The Reader Organisation, where speakers have included such notable advocates as Estelle Morris and Melvyn Bragg.

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