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FEATURE
SAFETY FIRST
Around 14,000 people teach creative writing in the UK, but few are trained in counselling. Carolyn Jess- Cooke pleads for more safeguards
I was left very shaken after leading a poorly- managed writing workshop in a sex offenders’ unit
CAROLYN JESS-COOKE is a
poet and novelist published in
23 languages. She currently
leads a British Academy-funded research project on creative writing interventions for mental health
at the University of Glasgow. Her most recent novel (as CJ Cooke) I Know My Name (HarperCollins)
is being developed for a TV drama.
This is a critical time for the relationship between creative writing and mental health. Although the therapeutic bene ts of writing were documented as far back as Freud’s 1908 paper ‘Creative writers and day-dreaming’, it wasn’t until James W Pennebaker’s ‘expressive writing’ trials in the 1980s that writing-as-therapy was considered a serious method of clinical practice. With antidepressant prescriptions more than doubling in the UK
over the last decade – to 64.7 million in 2016 – it comes as no surprise that ‘writing-for-wellbeing’ workshops are springing up everywhere in an e ort to deploy the positive force of writing against a sea of troubles.
In her pioneering book  e Self on the Page (co- edited with Fiona Sampson) Celia Hunt advocates ‘placing one’s experience on the page’ as ‘a
means to a deeper self-engagement and self- understanding’. Writing-for-wellbeing workshops are ideally led by experienced creative writers with a counselling background, and e orts to develop accredited courses in therapeutic writing are underway in the UK, leading with the Metanoia Institute’s MSc in Creative Writing for  erapeutic Purposes. In the US the National Association
for Poetry  erapy recently produced its  rst graduates.
While this seems auspicious, there is a problem. In the UK practitioners of music therapy, dance therapy, drama therapy and visual art therapy all have recognised professional bodies that provide regulation and codes of practice – whereas writing therapy remains unregulated and without a statutory code of practice.  is means that, at present, anyone can set up a writing-for-wellbeing workshop in these islands, regardless of how well quali ed they may be.
But even in the hands of an experienced facilitator, a writing workshop can have potentially catastrophic outcomes if safeguards are not in place. One study found expressive (creative) writing to be ‘detrimental’ for adult survivors of childhood abuse; another found a group of veterans su ering
from PTSD presented worsened symptoms after a trial involving expressive writing.
For this article I interviewed a substantial number of workshop leaders, psychotherapists and psychologists, as well as directors and founding members of Lapidus International, which was established in 1996 precisely to address the issue
of regulating writing for wellbeing in the UK.
My interviews revealed that most workshop leaders are highly empathetic and experienced at balancing creativity with therapy.  ey all had a background or quali cation in counselling, were aware of their duty of care, and con dent they could manage any issues that arose within the groups they led.
But it’s not always easy. As Lapidus member Wendy French told me, ‘you don’t know what people are carrying with them’. She always makes her course content absolutely explicit so that participants can decide whether they feel up to it or not. For instance, whilst working for Macmillan Cancer Support, she engaged patients in a series of memoir workshops. Although the workshops were not intended to be ‘therapeutic’ as such – memoir is, of course, a literary form – a specialist nurse interviewed interested participants prior
to the course to ensure that they were prepared for the possibility of confronting deeply buried personal narratives and memories – and some people opted out as a result. Likewise, Dr Siobhan Campbell made sure that people wanting to join her Combat Stress UK workshops were screened by a psychologist to make sure they were ready for potentially upsetting writing exercises.
Lapidus Director Lisa Rossetti thinks that setting the tone for a group is vital; she starts all her workshops in healthcare settings by drawing upon bestselling author and psychotherapist Kathleen Adams’ group agreement ‘Our
52 Dec/Jan/Feb 2017/18 mslexia
PHOTO: MARTIAL GENEST / DREAMSTIME


































































































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