Online course review: ‘Literature and Mental Health: Reading For Wellbeing’

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For the past six weeks I’ve been studying an online course Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing, coordinated by The University of  Warwick and hosted on Future Learn. I’ve really missed studying literature and having once wanted to pursue a career in treating clinical depression, this was the perfect course for me to try. Although I was concerned about finding the extra time to commit to this course, it was as easy as swapping out listening to Spotify during the day in favour of listening to online discussions.

Each of the six weeks explored different topics:

  • Stress
  • Heartbreak
  • Bereavement
  • PTSD and Trauma
  • Depression and Bipolar
  • Dementia and  Ageing

and each followed a very similar structure.

The course explored literature and how it can help individuals to feel comforted, understood, and that they aren’t alone. Analysis of poetry demonstrated that the rhythm and metre can really slow people down, forcing them to take their time in a hectic world. Different themes in novels give people a sense of belonging and recognition – delivered by writers who can express feelings in a permanent, physical form.

Interviews with medical practitioners throughout the six weeks revealed the physiological impact of mental illnesses, which was perhaps one of the more important aspects throughout the course. In a society that is slowly beginning to acknowledge that our mental health is just as important as the physical, these video interviews bridged the gap between the two.

Literature and Mental Health: Reading For Wellbeing made way for literary experts, writers, actors, and teachers to offer their own perceptions and insights about the role literature plays in improving our wellbeing. Ian Mckellen discussed ageing and dementia in King Lear and how he felt acting in the role, and Stephen Fry discussed the importance of poetry and rhythm in helping him to manage his experiences of bipolar depression.

On the topic of poetry, Literature and Mental Health: Reading For Wellbeing leaned heavily towards this form. I’m not a particular fan of poetry so sometimes found the course hard going. Despite this, I have ended the six weeks with a greater appreciation for it. Encouraged to use an app to find poetry and share it with my peers, the course took a much different approach to those I experienced during my academic career. I also appreciate that studying poems takes a lot less time than having to read multiple novels in just over a month.

With that said, Week 3: Heartbreak was my favourite bit of the course, giving the right balance between novels and poetry.  Studying extracts from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility amongst some more poetry gave a sweet respite from repetition. The exploration of differences between two heroines and their reactions to heartbreak shed a lot of light on personality, and even the way social media has changed our emotional reactions. The novel itself was enjoyable – which I cannot often say about Austen’s work – while the interrogative conversations around it were insightful and thought provoking.

Week 3 also introduced me to this wonderful poem – a single poem in the past 6 years I’ve really come to adore – written by Richard Berlin who was a poet and psychiatrist. It looks at the ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’ from a medical perspective and I just can’t express how this makes me feel:

Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy

I’m reviewing a left ventriculography
from a man with chest pain, MI ruled out,
his wife dead for a post-crash hour.
The scan shows his cardiac apex
bulging with each beat, shaped
like a takotsubo, an octopus trap
a Japanese cardiologist recalled
from his childhood fishing village,
the scan just another broken heart’s
beaten down story of futility and resilience.
And I will say, “I am sorry for your loss,”
explain the image, reassure him
his heart muscle will recover in a week,
all the time wishing I could hug him
with eight strong arms instead of two.

So here I am six weeks later, feeling thoroughly refreshed in my attitudes towards literature, more knowledgeable about mental health, and a believer that although literature can’t cure a mental illness, it can certainly improve our wellbeing. I’d recommend  Literature and Mental Health: Reading For Wellbeing to anyone who is interested in either topic and has a few hours to spare. I’ve also already booked onto my next online course that has quite a different spin. From a different country altogether, I’ll be studying Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales in April.

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