Lynda Monahan addresses mental health stigma through poetry
3 min read

People dealing with mental health disorders not only struggle with their illnesses, but they also find themselves on the margins of society, disenfranchised and facing stigma and discrimination. Prince Albert writer Lynda Monahan is helping people with mental health issues find a voice through poetry, by encouraging them to write about their experiences and by creating her own poems.

Monahan spent two years as writer-in-residence at Victoria Hospital in Prince Albert,first as a volunteer and then supported by Common Weal Community Arts. She wrote with patients on the adult and youth psychiatric wards and on the palliative care and medical wards, as well as with residents in two nursing homes attached to the hospital. She has been facilitator of a Writing for Your Life group with the Prince Albert branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association for the past six years.

“People in hospitals so often are controlled by others. Everything is out of their control. There is the opportunity for them to write about their experiences – one thing they feel they have some say in. They see the value of writing to express how they are feeling,” she says.

The more she helped people with mental health disorders find their voices, the more the topic found its way into her own writing. “I don’t see the people I work with as any different from me. When I ask them to write something, I write it, too. I include myself in it – my own personal issues and my family’s experiences with mental health. I try to write not as an observer, but as a participant.” She was moved by the strength she saw in the other participants. “These people have lived marginalized lives and have gone through so much, but they don’t quit. Their hope and courage inspires me so much,” she says. “There is a misunderstanding about mental health. We are all people. We are all cut from the same cloth, even though we don’t realize it. It opened my eyes about how we really are the same.”

Monahan received an Independent Artists grant to work on the manuscript, Saying the Unsayable Things. She is currently revising 40 rough draft poems and writing 25 new ones. “I am discovering ways to write about mental illness with honesty and integrity, always mindful of being respectful to those whose stories I share in my poems,” she says. “I want the manuscript to be an honouring of people with mental illness. I want it to exemplify hope.”

She received a positive reception when she read from the work at a local high school and library, as well as at Government House alongside the provincial poet laureate. One poem in particular, “The Fox”, elicited a strong response from audiences. “People came up to me afterwards, feeling very emotional, and talked with me about the poem and what it meant to them. It’s a pivotal poem in the manuscript about finding hope. The reaction I got was very positive and very meaningful.”

Below is one of Monahan’s poems inspired by her artist residency at Victoria Hospital.
 

to say there is poetry

in the bright impossible grin
of a young man who can neither hear nor speak
a young man who ranges the ward
in a paper hat that declares him St. Patrick
to say there is poetry in the random words and symbols
he painstakingly puts to paper 

in the bone thin face of a tiny woman
caught in the cage of her dementia
who sits primly her eyes shining
head poised like a delicate bird
as she tells me for the hundredth time

I am so lost
my family doesn't know I am here

or in the shuffle of a middle aged woman
who touches the small pearls at my earlobes
and says I don't allow myself pretty things
and you have to wonder
what kind of wounds she bears 
that would cause her to feel she deserves nothing

or the whey faced man
crouched in a corner
nursing his coffee
his eyes a wilderness of infinite gray
despair a garment he wears
as surely as his hospital blue pajamas

among all the tawdriness and pain and glory
in each man and woman
in all their vulnerability and their humanity
in this place    there is poetry everywhere