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Melissa Lee-Houghton: 'Articulating your experience is remarkably life-affirming'

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To mark World Mental Health Day, the Forward prize-shortlisted poet talks about how writing has figured throughout her psychiatric recovery

During my first prolonged hospital admission, at the age of 14, I wrote. At that West Yorkshire in-patient unit, I witnessed other patients cut their own throats, burn their skin and swallow glass. At this stage, I wasn’t medicated so I endured all of this by writing letters to the other girls; this soon evolved into my reading and writing poetry.

I kept my poetry to myself for the most part, though some of the nurses read it. Writing helped me feel as though I was releasing some of the anguish that I’d been forced to keep to myself. But in later years and at later admissions, I was medicated and my capacity for writing was diminished, by both the medication and the inhibiting influence of routine. Psychiatry provided a simplistic framework for living, but rarely allowed me opportunities to articulate my distress.

A person’s psychological distress is reduced to a pill, a prescription and a diagnosis. I tried something else: I wrote.

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