The Potential Role of Life-Writing Therapy in Facilitating ‘Recovery’ for Those with Mental Illness

Philip Max Neilsen, Ffion Murphy



This article addresses the experience of designing and conducting life-writing workshops for a group of clients with severe mental illness; the aim of this pilot study was to begin to determine whether such writing about the self can aid in individual ‘recovery’, as that term is understood by contemporary health professionals. A considerable amount has been written about the potential of creative writing in mental health therapy; the authors of this article provide a brief summary of that literature, then of the concept of ‘recovery’ in a psychology and arts therapy context.  There follows a first-hand account by one of the authors of being an arts therapy workshop facilitator in the role of a creative practitioner. This occurred in consultation with, and monitored by, experienced mental health professionals.

Life-Writing as ‘Therapeutic’

Life-story or life-writing can be understood in this context as involving more than disclosure or oral expression of a subject’s ‘story’ as in psycho-therapy – life-story is understood as a written, structured narrative. In 2001, Wright and Chung published a review of the literature in which they claimed that writing therapy had been “restimulated by the development of narrative approaches” (278). Pennebaker argues that “catharsis or the venting of emotions” without “cognitive processing” has little therapeutic value and people need to “build a coherent narrative that explains some past experience” in order to benefit from writing” (Pennebaker, Telling Stories 10–11). It is claimed in the Clinical Psychology Review that life-writing has the therapeutic benefits of, for example, “striking physical health and behaviour change” (Esterling et al. 84). The reasons are still unclear, but it is possible that the cognitive and linguistic processing of problematic life-events through narrative writing may help the subject assimilate such problems (Alschuler 113–17). As Pennebaker and Seagal argue in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the life-writing process

allows one to organise and remember events in a coherent fashion while integrating thoughts and feelings ... This gives individuals a sense of predictability and control over their lives. Once an experience has structure and meaning, it would follow that the emotional effects of that experience are more manageable. (1243)

It would seem reasonable to suggest that life-writing which constructs a positive recovery narrative can have a positive therapeutic effect, providing a sense of agency, connectedness and creativity, in a similar, integrating manner. Humans typically see their lives as stories. Paul Eakin stresses the link between narrative and identity in both this internal life-story and in outwardly constructed autobiography:

narrative is not merely a literary form but a mode of phenomenological and cognitive self-experience, while self – the self of autobiographical discourse - does not necessarily precede its constitution in narrative. (Making Selves 100)

So both a self-in-time and a socially viable identity may depend on such narrative. The term ‘dysnarrativia’ has been coined to describe the documented inability to construct self-narrative by those suffering amnesia, autism, severe child abuse or brain damage. The lack of ability to achieve narrative construction seems to be correlated with identity disorders (Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography 124). (For an overview of the current literature on creative and life-writing as therapy see Murphy & Neilsen).

What is of particular relevance to university creative writing practitioners/teachers is that there is evidence, for example from Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman and creative writing academic Vicki Linder, that life-narratives are more therapeutically effective if guided to be written according to fundamental ‘effective writing’ aesthetic conventions – such as having a regard to coherent structure in the narrative, the avoidance of cliché, practising the ‘demonstrate don’t state’ dictum, and writing in one’s own voice, for example.

Defining ‘Recovery’

There remains debate as to the meaning of recovery in the context of mental health service delivery, but there is agreement that recovery entails significantly more than symptom remission or functional improvement (Liberman & Kopelowicz). In a National Consensus Statement, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) unit of the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2005 described recovery (in general terms) as being achieved by the enabling of a person with a mental illness to live meaningfully in a chosen community, while also attempting to realize individual potential.

‘Recovery’ as a central concept behind rehabilitation can be understood both as objective recovery – that is, in terms of noting a reduction in objective indicators of illness and disability (such as rates of hospital usage or unemployment) and a greater degree of social functioning – and also as subjective recovery. Subjective recovery can be ascertained by listening closely to what clients themselves have said about their own experiences. It has been pointed out (King, Lloyd & Meehan 2) that there is not always a correspondence between objective indicators of recovery and the subjective, lived experience of recovery.

The experience of mental illness is not just one of symptoms and disability but equally importantly one of major challenge to sense of self. Equally, recovery from mental illness is experienced not just in terms of symptoms and disability but also as a recovery of sense of self … Recovery of sense of self and recovery with respect to symptoms and disability may not correspond. (King, Lloyd & Meehan; see also Davidson & Strauss)

Symptoms of disability can persist, but a person can have a much stronger sense of self or empowerment – that is still recovery. Illness dislocates the sense of self as part of a community and of a self with skills and abilities. Restoring this sense of empowerment is an aim of arts therapy. To put it another way, recovery is a complex process by which a client with a mental illness develops a sense of identity and agency as a citizen, as distinct from identification with illness and disability and passivity as a ‘patient’.

The creative arts have gone well beyond being seen as a diversion for the mentally ill. In a comprehensive UK study of creative arts projects for clients with mental illness, Helen Spandler et al. discovered strong evidence that participation in creative activity promoted a sense of purpose and meaning, and assisted in “rediscovering or rebuilding an identity within and beyond that of someone with mental health difficulties” (795).  

Recovery is aided by people being motivated to achieve self-confidence through mastery and competence; by learning and achieving goals. Clearly this is where arts therapy could be expected or hoped to be effective. The aim of the pilot study was not to measure ‘creativity’, but whether involvement in what is commonly understood as a creative process (life-writing) can have flow-on benefits in terms of the illness of the workshop participant. The psychologists involved, though more familiar with visual arts therapy (reasonably well-established in Australia in 2006, the ANZAT began publishing the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art Therapy), thought creative writing could also be valuable.

Preparation for and Delivery of the Workshops

I was acutely aware that I had no formal training in delivering a program to clients with mental health illness. I was counselled during several meetings with experienced psychologists and a social worker that the participants in the three workshops over two weeks would largely be people who had degrees of difficulty in living independently, and could well have perceptual problems, could misjudge signals from outside and inside the group, and be on medication that could affect their degree of engagement. Some clients could have impaired concentration and cognition, and a deficit in volition. Participants needed to be free to leave and rejoin the workshops during the afternoon sessions. Attendance might well fall as the workshops progressed. Full ethical clearance was attained though the University of Queensland medical faculty (after detailed description of the content and conduct of the proposed workshops) and consent forms prepared for participants.

My original workshop ‘kit’ to be distributed to participants underwent some significant changes as I was counselled and prepared for the workshops. The major adjustment to my usual choice of material and approach was made in view of the advice that recounting traumatic events can have a negative effect on some patients – at least in the short term. For the sake of both the individuals and the group as a whole this was to be avoided. I changed my initial emphasis on encouraging participants to recount their traumatic experiences in a cathartic way (as suggested by the narrative psychology literature), to encouraging them to recount positive narratives from their lives – narratives of ‘recovery’ – as I explain in more detail below.

I was also counselled that clients with mental health problems might dwell on retelling their story – their case history – rather than reflecting upon it or using their creative and imaginative ability to shape a life-story that was not a catalogue of their medical history. Some participants did demonstrate a desire to retell their medical history or narrative – including a recurring theme of the difficulty in gaining continuity with one trusted medical professional. I gently guided these participants back to fashioning a different and more creative narrative, with elements of scene creation, description and so on, by my first listening intently to and acknowledging their medical narrative for a few minutes and then suggesting we try to move beyond that. This simple strategy was largely successful; several participants commented explicitly that they were tired of having to retell their medical history to each new health professional they encountered in the hospital system, for example.

My principal uncertainty was whether I should conduct the workshops at the same level of complexity that I had in the past with groups of university students or community groups. While in both of those cohorts there will often be some participants with mental health issues, for the most part this possibility does not affect the level or kind of content of material discussed in workshops. However, within this pilot group all had been diagnosed with moderate to severe mental illness, mostly schizophrenia, but also bipolar disorder and acute depression and anxiety disorders.

The fact that my credentials were only as a published writer and teacher of creative writing, not as a health professional, was also a strong concern to me. But the clients readily accepted me as someone who knew the difficulty of writing well and getting published. I stressed to them that my primary aim was to teach effective creative writing as an end in itself. That it might be beneficial in health terms was secondary. It was a health professional who introduced me and briefly outlined the research aims of the workshop – including some attempt to measure qualitatively any possible benefits. It was my impression that the participants did not have a diminished sense of my usefulness because I was not a health professional. Their focus was on having the opportunity to practice creative writing and/or participate in a creative group activity.

As mentioned above, I had prepared a workshop ‘kit’ for the participants of 15 pages. It contained the usual guidelines for effective writing – extracts from professional writers’ published work (including an extract from my own published work – a matter of equity, since they were allowing me to read their work), and a number of writing exercises (using description, concrete and abstract words, narrative point of view, writing in scenes, show don’t tell). The kit contained extracts from memoirs by Hugh Lunn and Bill Bryson, as well as a descriptive passage from Charles Dickens. An extract from Inga Clendinnen’s 2006 account in Agamemnon’s Kiss: selected essays of her positive interaction with fellow cancer patients (a narrative with the underlying theme of recovery) was also valuable for the participants.

I stressed to the group that this material was very similar to that used with beginning writers among university students. I described the importance of life-writing as follows:

Life-writing is simply telling a story from your life and perhaps musing or commenting on it at the same time. When you write a short account of something chosen from your life, you are making a pattern, using your memory, using your powers of description – you are being creative. You are being a story-teller. And story-telling is one very important thing that makes us humans different from all other animals – and it is a way in which we find a lot of meaning in our lives.

My central advice in the kit was: “Just try to be as honest as you can – and to remember as well as you can … being honest and direct is both the best and the easiest way to write memoir”. The only major difference between my approach with these clients and that with a university class was in the selection of possible topics offered. In keeping with the advice of the psychologists who were experts in the theory of ‘recovery’, the topics were predominantly positive, though one or two topics gave the opportunity to recount and/or explore a negative experience if the participant wanted to do so:

  • A time when I was able to help another person
  • A time when I realised what really mattered in life
  • A time when I overcame a major difficulty
  • A time when I felt part of a group or team
  • A time when I knew what I wanted to do with my life
  • A time when someone recognised a talent or quality of mine
  • A time I did something that I was proud of
  • A time when I learned something important to me
  • A memorable time when I lived in a certain house or suburb
  • A story that begins: “Looking back, I now understand that …”

The group expressed satisfaction with these topics, though they had the usual writing students’ difficulty in choosing the one that best suited them. In the first two workshops we worked our way through the kit; in the third workshop, two weeks later, each participant read their own work to the group and received feedback from their peers and me. The feedback was encouraged to be positive and constructive, and the group spontaneously adopted a positive reinforcement approach, applauding each piece of writing.  

Workshop Dynamics

The venue for the workshops was a suburban house in the Logan area of Brisbane used as a drop-in centre for those with mental illness, and the majority of the participants would be familiar with it. It had a large, breezy deck on which a round-table configuration of seating was arranged. This veranda-type setting was sheltered enough to enable all to be heard easily and formal enough to emphasise a learning event was taking place; but it was also open enough to encourage a relaxed atmosphere.

The week before the first workshop I visited the house to have lunch with a number of the participants. This gave me a sense of some of the participants’ personalities and degree of engagement, the way they related to each other, and in turn enabled them to begin to have some familiarity with me and ask questions. As a novice at working with this kind of client, I found this experience extremely valuable, especially as it suggested that a relatively high degree of communication and cognition would be possible, and it reduced the anxiety I had about pitching the workshops at an appropriate level.  

In the course of the first workshop, the most initially sceptical workshop participant ended up being the most engaged contributor. A highly intelligent woman, she felt it would be too upsetting to write about negative events, but ultimately wrote a very effective piece about the empowerment she gained from caring for a stray cat and locating the owner. Her narrative also expressed her realisation that the pet was partly a replacement for spending time with her son, who lived interstate. Another strong participant previously had written a book-length narrative of her years of misdiagnoses and trauma in the hospital system before coming under the care of her present health professionals. The participant who had the least literacy skills was accepted by the group as an equal and after a while contributed enthusiastically. Though he refused to sign the consent form at the outset, he asked to do so at the close of the first afternoon.

The workshop was comprised of clients from two health provider organisations; at first the two groups tended to speak with those they already knew (as in any such situation in the broader community), but by the third workshop a sense of larger group identity was being manifested in their comments, as they spoke of what ‘the group’ would like in the future – such as their work being published in some form.

It was clear that, as in a university setting, part of the beneficial effect of the workshops came from group and face to face interaction. It would be more difficult to have this dimension of benefit achieved via a web-based version of the workshops, though a chat room scenario would presumably go some way towards establishing a group feeling. Web-based delivery would certainly suit participants who lacked mobility or who lived in the regions. Clearly the Internet is a vital social networking tool, and an Internet-based version of the workshops could well be attempted in the future.  

My own previous experience of community digital storytelling workshops (Neilsen, Digital Storytelling as Life-writing) suggests that a high degree of technical proficiency can not be expected across such a cohort; but with adequate technical support, a program (the usual short, self-written script, recorded voice-over and still images scanned from the participants’ photo albums, etc) could make digital storytelling a further dimension of therapeutic life-writing for clients with mental illness.    

One of the most useful teaching techniques in a class room setting is the judicious use of humour – to create a sense of sharing a perspective, and simply to make material more entertaining. I tested the waters at the outset by referring to the mental health worker sitting in the background, and declaring (with some comic exaggeration) my concern that if I didn’t run the workshop well he would report adversely on me. There was general laughter and this expression of my vulnerability seemed to defuse anxiety on the part of some participants. As the workshop progressed I found I could use both humorous extracts of life-writing and ad hoc comic comments (never at the expense of a participant) as freely as in a university class. Participants made some droll comments in the overall context of encouraging one another in their contributions, both oral and written.

Only one participant exhibited some temporary distress during one of the workshops. I was allowing another participant the freedom to digress from the main topic and the participant beside me displayed agitation and sharply demanded we get back to the point. I apologised and acknowledged I had not stayed as focused as I should and returned to the topic. I suspect I had a fortunate first experience of such arts therapy workshops – and that this was largely due to the voluntary nature of the study and that most of the participants brought a prior positive experience of the workshop scenario, and prior interest in creative writing, to the workshops. 


A significantly positive outcome was that only one of the nine participants missed a session (through ill-health) and none left during workshops. The workshops tended to proceed longer than the three hours allotted on each occasion.

Post-workshop interviews were conducted by a psychologist with the participants. Detailed data is not available yet – but there was a clear indication by almost all participants that they felt the workshops were beneficial and that they would like to participate in further workshops.  All but one agreed to have their life-writing included in a newsletter produced by one of the sponsors of the workshops.

The positive reception of the workshops by the participants has encouraged planning to be undertaken for a wide-ranging longitudinal study by means of a significant number of workshops in both life-writing and visual arts in more than one city, conducted by a team of health professionals and creative practitioners – this time with sophisticated measurement instruments to gauge the effectiveness of art therapy in aiding ‘recovery’.

Small as the workshop group was, the pilot study seems to validate previous research in the UK and US as we have summarised above. The indications are that significant elements of recovery (in particular, feelings of enhanced agency and creativity), can be achieved by life-writing workshops that are guided by creative practitioners; and that it is the process of narrative construction within life-writing that engages with or enhances a sense of self and identity. 


We are indebted, in making the summary of the concept of ‘recovery’ in health science terms, to work in progress by the following research team: Robert King, Tom O'Brien and Claire Edwards (School of Medicine, University of Queensland), Margot Schofield and Patricia Fenner (School of Public Health, Latrobe University). We are also grateful for the generous assistance of both this group and Seiji Humphries from the Richmond Queensland Fellowship, in providing preparation for the workshops.


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recovery, therapy, life-writing, creative writing, workshops

Copyright (c) 2008 Philip Max Neilsen, Ffion Murphy

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