Shauna Darling Robertson: Poetry and Mental Health

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

These words are Alan Bennett’s. The story that follows is mine. It’s about how the hand that came out and took mine when I most needed it came in a way I would never have suspected, through poetry.

At school I had zero interest in poetry. In fact, I actively disliked it! Poems were illogical. Metaphors mystified me. Why didn’t people just say what they meant? I wanted things black and white, right or wrong, either/or. Turns out there was a reason for that – I was lost and grappling for a sense of safety and certainty, but I didn’t know that yet. I was about to, though.

As a young adult my mental health wobbled then imploded. I became incapacitated with depression. Out of nowhere, and in some of my darkest hours, I started writing poems. In literary terms they were awful but, in personal terms, pure gold.

The poems came at a time when I could hardly communicate – with myself or with anyone else. Thoughts and feelings howled around me like tsunamis, wild animals, demons, whirlwinds, like surreal nightmares too dark and complex for reality. In ‘normal’ language I couldn’t process them. But poems could hack it. Suddenly, I had a way of expressing the inexpressible. Poems were up to the job. Poems became my allies and guides. They accompanied me to the shadowy places and shone a flashlight. They slowed everything down, took things one step at a time. They found images and sounds and words for experiences that were frightening and didn’t make sense. They stepped back and eyed it all from a safer distance.

As soon as I felt well enough to go out, I ventured to the library in search of ‘real’ poets and poems, hoping to maybe find – at long last – one or two I could actually relate to. Who knew there were so many! So many different hands and voices coming out and telling me – no, showing me – that I wasn’t alone, broken, hopeless or beyond help (as my mind often liked to have me believe). I was, however, a rotten poet and much later I threw myself into learning how to get better at it, largely by continuing to read as wide a range of poets and poems as I could.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I’m finishing off work on my second collection of poems for young people. It’s called You Are Not Alone, it’s aimed at teenagers and young adults and it explores multiple aspects of mental health and wellbeing. The poems in the book look at the topic from a raft of different perspectives – from personal experiences of living with diagnosed mental health conditions, to the everyday challenges faced by young people, and also how various aspects of our society might help or hinder our collective wellbeing.

The book will be published in January, in time for Children’s Mental Health Week 2023 (6-12th February), and in a period when young people’s mental health has never been so high on the public agenda. On the plus side, our attitudes towards mental health are changing and there’s much less stigma than when I was a child. But it’s still far from easy to talk openly about our personal challenges, or to access the help we need to address them. Here’s ‘Jamal’, from the book:

Shauna Darling Robertson 

Shauna Darling Robertson grew up in the north-east of England and now lives in the south-west. Her first children’s collection, Saturdays at the Imaginarium (Troika, 2020), was a National Poetry Day 2021 selection. She also has two adult chapbooks, Blueprints for a Minefield (Fair Acre Press, 2016) and Love Bites (Dancing Girl Press, 2019). Shauna’s a keen collaborator and her poems for adults and children have been performed by actors, displayed on buses, used as song lyrics, made into short films and turned into comic art.

Shauna is grateful to have received funding from Arts Council England‘s ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ programme to support work on You Are Not Alone (Troika, January 2023).