I run poetry writing workshops for just about anyone – 5 to 105-year-olds of any background or level of ability or need – but I find that by far the most rewarding group to work with are teens with mental health problems and I am fortunate to have done so in numerous settings over the years.
Most recently I finished a 10-month project with a London-based special school for such youngsters (a client of mine for the last six years) that was funded by a major UK charity. It is likely to be re-funded next year as the results were so impressive despite the fact that the teens' problems include self-harm, suicide attempts, anorexia, manic depression, schizophrenia etc and they come from backgrounds where they have normally been seriously abused physically, emotionally and/or sexually.
So how do you get some of the most challenging young people to produce something as 'uncool' as a poem? I'd like to offer some suggestions by outlining what works for me and perhaps could work for you too:
1. Be yourself. Don't try and 'get down with the kids' as it just doesn't work as they spot any attempt to be cool a mile off!
2. Don't be nervous about their conditions or situations. The young people are generally very aware of their issues and discuss them amongst each other. So if you feel someone cannot produce a poem because they are not up to it mentally at the time of your session, don't avoid them – ask them how they feel and how you can help.
3. Don't be too 'teachery'. If you run workshops of course you ARE a teacher of sorts but worksheets, whiteboards and detailed discussions about metaphors and similes do not work for me with these young people. Be far less structured and more informal. I find many such teens incredibly intelligent, full of ideas and frequently excellent at expressing themselves. BUT what you need to provide is the motivation and inspiration to get them moving and then to see there work through. My style is comedy poetry – that helps too as comedy is a great ice-breaker.
4. Concentrate on you performing, them writing and then sharing together. Although very expressive with words on paper some of the teens are far less vocal when it comes to sharing or performing poetry as what they produce is often deeply personal and their conditions also may hold them back when it comes to reading aloud. But DO try it – sit in a circle, go round one by one and don't apply any pressure, only encouragement. If someone wants to opt out then ask them again when you complete a second lap of the circle. Don't get them to read each other's poems as they normally cannot put them across in the correct way and often stumble to read the writing. And if you step in to read one of their poems they will ALL ask you to read their work!
5. Get staff to help. Staff will know the students better than you so get them involved one-to-one with some of the most challenging ones so you can circulate and help everyone (inc those in the one-to-one). If staff have time to write poems too that's great as them leading by example always helps your cause and will motivate the students.
6. Timing is important. Many of these young people will find it hard to wake up in the morning, especially if on heavy medication or very depressed, so 10am is a good time to start or just after a lunch, but not too late as they will tire by the end of the day. 60-90 mins is the ideal session length – no longer. Speak to the staff too about cigarette breaks for them as many will be smokers and need time out to help their mental focus.
7. Pick your theme. I never ask people with mental health problems to write about their conditions. Like most people they have opinions and wish to express themselves on a huge range of topics and are probably fed up discussing the state of their mind. Keep the topics broad and let them interpret them as they want. They WILL often bring their mental health issues into their writing even on the most seemingly unrelated themes but when they chose to do that it's fine as writing for them can be extremely theraputic and a way for them to crystalise the many conflicting emotions and thoughts they hold in their heads.
8. Taboos. I have only one explicit no-go area: no writing about anyone in the school/unit whether staff or pupil, even if the writer thinks it is a positive comment. However, you need to recognise that, due to their backgrounds and more so then regular teens, they might wish to test your boundaries with sexually explicit terms, bad language or overtly violent themes. You need to judge very carefully what is a genuine sad tale that needs to be told as opposed to something that is tokenistic and done for effect to shock you or others. A word with staff before the session is the best way to handle this so you can know what to expect. I have never had a problem here as a result.
So I hope that helps you. Naturally I would be keen to hear any comments from anyone with experience in this area or people who wish to venture into it. Thank you.
© Neal Zetter 2012