The Power of Poetry on the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit

Andy Huntington founded a writing project, using the Pongo model, in the Inpatient Psychiatric Unit at Children's Hospital in Seattle. He runs this weekly project along with several volunteers. In this article he introduces the context and experience of his work.

by Andy Huntington, Pediatric Mental Health Specialist

My heart races a bit, and I start to sweat. All the kids stop and look at me as I try to explain what I'm doing there. "How many of you have ever written poetry?" Some eyes light up, others turn back toward a half-completed Sudoku or their school work. I feel excitement because I know how powerful an hour of writing can be for some of these kids. I know how invigorating it can be for me. To hear them say afterward "This is the best I've felt in a long time" or "When can I do this again?" shows me the power of self-expression in tough times. I feel trepidation because the emotional journey to craft these poems is so difficult for both the kids and the writing volunteers who help me guide the group. Each week we get a few children on the inpatient Psychiatric Unit (IPU) to try something new, to take a risk and share their experiences through poetry.

The IPU at Seattle Children's Hospital is a crisis stabilization unit. Our average length of stay is usually 5-7 days, so there is almost continual turnover in our population. We admit kids who are actively struggling with a wide variety of mental health issues, who are at imminent risk of harming themselves or others. From depression to anxiety, eating disorders to autism spectrum disorders, with psychosis and bipolar tendencies, the children have a variety of needs, but the IPU is a safe place for all children and families to regroup and reassess the best way to move forward in treating debilitating mental health issues. During their stay, children undergo a comprehensive curriculum of group therapy sessions designed to increase emotion management and communication skills. One of our main goals is to offer children healthy ways to cope with the stresses of their daily life. The Pongo poetry group dovetails nicely into this model because of its heavy emphasis on self-expression and self-exploration. If you can write about your emotions you will be better able to understand them, find ways to solve your problems or communicate your needs effectively.

Our weekly poetry group offers a small number of kids the chance to explore the difficult experiences or questions of their lives. I strongly believe that the ability to distill a swirling cloud of fluctuating emotions and thoughts into words is critical for kids struggling with mental illness. It gives them a new grounding, a new foundational understanding of events and feelings. Our kids battle with their identity in these poems, they try to make sense of relationships, they apologize, they blame, they wonder, and they make plans for the future. Many of our children grow up in families that have a hard time expressing their emotions, so the act of writing and sharing poems allows for a great deal of emotional validation. The simple act, by a writing volunteer, of listening and saying "That must be so difficult" can be very reassuring to a child who is undergoing something challenging and who is maybe feeling misunderstood or alone.

This fall our goal is to have the poetry group meet more than once a week, and to create an IPU anthology, which will broaden our understanding of what it means to be young or what it means to be "mentally ill." These poems are honest and powerful, and they are a constant reminder of how lucky I am to be working with such strong and courageous humans.