#MyMentalHealthJourney: in conversation with Young People’s Laureate for London Theresa Lola

In August 2019 Spread the Word’s Young People’s Laureate for London Theresa Lola is launching a social media campaign #MyMentalHealthJourney. We’re speaking to Theresa about her work on mental health, the links between poetry and wellbeing, and find out how you can get involved.

photo of blue mountains peeking through clouds

Can you tell us about your work on mental health and poetry?

I am thrilled to launch #MyMentalHealthJourney. I am asking young people to share poems on social media about their experiences with mental ill-health, as well as stories of support and self-care. You can get involved by searching for the hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, or submit your poems to be posted anonymously on Spread the Word’s website.

Leading up to the launch I ran a poetry workshop with the Young Activists from YoungMinds, and their poems will help lead the campaign and hopefully inspire other young people to share their poems.

This work stems from my attempts to express my personal mental health journey. My debut poetry collection scratched the surface of exploring those experiences. Since then I have run poetry workshops for young people on mental health, offering poetry as an opening and an expressive tool.

Why have you chosen to focus on mental health as the Young People’s Laureate for London?

There is currently a mental health crisis especially among young people. The government has struggled to allocate funding that accurately meets the demand for mental health services, and community centres and mental health charities are stepping up to do more. It was only right and urgent to have mental health as the focus for my tenure. Personally, poetry has been one of many support systems and tools that I’ve needed to let out what I have been through.

Poetry is a creative and cathartic avenue for young people to share their ongoing mental health journey.

What one thing do you hope to achieve with this project?

I hope the poems shared as part of the #MyMentalHealthJourney project provides a source of encouragement and inspiration for young people to tap into. I hope they welcome the power of expression through poetry too.

photo of young man concentrating on writing
Photo: Cesare de Giglio for The Poetry Society.

You’ve spoken in other interviews about self-care – what do you think self-care looks like in the lives of young poets, and what does self-care mean for you?

Self-care means an active investment in one’s wellbeing. The definition differs for everyone. For young poets and young people generally, self-care can be community, friendship, accessing online and print help guides, and poetry can be a beginning or extension of therapy.

Last year here at The Poetry Society we surveyed young poets about their reading and writing habits. 95% of respondents said they thought space to write for pleasure in school was important. When asked why, over half commented on the positive mental health benefits to writing poetry. Why do you think this is?

Writing for pleasure is where young people can really explore creative expression. Art is sometimes recommended as a form of therapy, though this isn’t always enough. Whether or not poetry is being used as a form of therapy there is a cathartic relief that comes with putting feelings into poetry and onto paper. We can surprise ourselves with the creative ways we can describe an experience we struggled to previously articulate.

Who do you see as leading role models in speaking about mental health through poetry?

Cecilia Knapp: Cecilia is a poet who frequently works with young poets and was the co-tutor of the Roundhouse Collective in 2019. She is also an ambassador for the mental health charity CALM (The Campaign Against Living Miserably).

Sanah Ahsan: Sanah is a trainee clinical psychologist, poet and activist. Most recently she won the Out-Spoken Prize for performance poetry 2019.

joelle taylor stands and holds a microphone on stage
Joelle Taylor. Photo: Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society.

Hussain Manawer: In 2017, Hussain set the Guinness World Record for the World’s Largest Mental Health Lesson and he continues to focus on mental health through poetry on a large scale.

Lionheart: Lionheart’s work is concerned with using poetry to explore the intersections of mental health and architecture. He runs the discussion night Subjectivity, a sure recommendation!

Joelle Taylor: Joelle is an award-winning poet, playwright and performer. She founded SLAMbassadors UK, the longest-running National Youth Slam for 13-18 year olds. She was recently published in an anthology on mental health, The Dizziness of Freedom (Bad Betty Press).

What advice would you give to young poets?

Poetry is therapeutic and an outlet to express yourself, but please also take care of yourselves too! Seek advice from people you trust and from specialist platforms (for example YoungMinds have a great online resource) if there is something that needs more attention.

How can young poets get involved in your work on mental health?

Use and search for the #MyMentalHealthJourney campaign on Twitter or Instagram and get inspired to write and share a poem of your own! Selected poems will be collated into a pamphlet released later in the year. Alternatively you can submit your poems to be posted anonymously at: spreadtheword.org.uk/MyMentalHealthJourney


Theresa Lola
Photo: Hayley Madden for Spread the Word.

Theresa Lola is a British Nigerian Poet. She is the 2019/2020 Young People’s Laureate for London. She is an alumna of the Barbican Young Poets programme. Her debut poetry collection In Search of Equilibrium was published by Nine Arches Press In February 2019. #MyMentalHealthJourney is a project run by Spread the Word and BUREAU. Read one of Theresa’s poems on mental health, ‘Two Photographs’.

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