Music is said to soothe the soul, but the benefits of poetry are far less well known. Yet poetry may have unsuspected powers: a study carried out during the pandemic reveals that people who write or read poetry can feel less lonely, sad and anxious.
According to the World Health Organization, Covid-19 caused anxiety and depression worldwide to soar by around 25%. While the fear of contracting the virus and financial worries largely contributed to this increase, social isolation and, more broadly, loneliness have emerged as the main factors of stress and anxiety, prompting numerous organisations to launch initiatives to alleviate the problem.
Among them was the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which, in partnership with Plymouth University and Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom, launched a project enabling people to share and read poetry.
More than three years after the launch of this interface, a team of researchers from both universities sought to determine the impact of this kind of initiative on the mental health of some of its users.
Through a survey of 400 people who used the site to share their own verses or read those of others, they found that writing, reading or sharing poetry had a “positive impact” on users’ mental health during this difficult period.
“These results demonstrate the substantial power of poetry. Writing and reading poetry, as well as engaging with the website, had a considerable positive impact on the wellbeing of the participants during the pandemic,” said principal investigator Anthony Caleshu, professor of poetry and creative writing at the University of Plymouth.
“In addition to supporting their health and wellbeing, the website informed social and cultural recovery and offered an understanding of how poetry was being used as a mode of discourse during the pandemic.”
In detail, the study shows that poetry helped the majority of users surveyed (51%) to deal with loneliness and social isolation, while it helped with managing anxiety and depression for 50% of respondents.
“Poetry has been a lifeline throughout the pandemic, both reading and writing it,” one user of the platform said in the survey – and even simply browsing the verses made many people feel better. More than a third of study participants (34%) say they felt “less anxious” just by engaging with the website, while 24% said the interface helped them feel better able to handle their problems.
“This study shows that creativity, coupled with the opportunity for safe and supportive explication and discussion, can help people endure difficult times and circumstances by providing outlets through which they can work at making sense of experience,” concluded Rory Waterman, associate professor of modern and contemporary literature at Nottingham Trent University.
Now archived, the platform is nonetheless accessible to anyone who wants to discover some 1,000 poems published by over 600 users between June 2020 and June 2021.
Over 100,000 people from more than 125 different countries visited the site during this period.