I have a long history of depression. It started when I was in middle school and continued through high school, college, and beyond. I was never good at talking about it, especially in my teen years, so I taught myself coping mechanisms. I wasn’t popular or interested in sports and kept a very small social circle. One of the first and best tools I used to combat depression was poetry. It was a light for me. I wrote pages and pages of it. Putting my feelings and all the darkness on the page gave me more perspective, made the pain a little bit smaller, made it real, and so, in some way, vanquishable.
Some poems I would share with friends and teachers, but many were simply too personal. I remember sharing one of my darker pieces with my mentor, our youth pastor, over a one-on-one meal. I had never felt so bare. At first, as he read my pages-long poem, I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I was a leader, a model student, and it felt strange to admit to having a “problem” or something not “perfect” or “right” about me. He continued reading, and I could see his face was concerned, but it began to feel a little better, easier to sit there and let him digest it. That poem was the only language I knew at the time to tell someone about the emotional maelstrom inside me.
April is National Poetry Month, which the Academy of American Poets (AAP) launched in 1996. Most adults don’t think about poetry in their day-to-day lives. Many say that poetry is dead or that only poets read poetry. But poetry is all around us, including in the song lyrics we hear every day. In many youth’s worlds, poetry is alive and well. And essential. Beyond therapeutic uses, poetry promotes youth development by helping youth build a sense of voice and self, spurring self-advocacy and community involvement, improving writing and reading skills, and better connecting youth to each other and different cultures.
In college, poetry became a way for me to explore and solidify my identity, to share my thoughts and feelings with others, and to be a part of a positive, creative community. I worked on and contributed to my school’s literature review and produced a poem a week for group critique.
In my first job after college, I worked at a drop-in youth center in downtown Denver. Most of our youth were from impoverished communities or were homeless. In addition to workforce and educational programming, the center also boasted a host of creative outlets, including music production studios, a full-color youth magazine, and open mic poetry slams. Youth wrote stories, poems, and raps about their lives, dreams, and struggles that they published in the magazine and performed at open mics. There were so many creative contributors, so much amazing talent, so much positive energy burgeoning amidst inner city problems.
Youth families and communities stand to benefit a great deal from poetry. Young poets can earn poetry scholarships for college. Youth can participate in local, regional, and national slam poetry competitions. Young poets can write to and hear back from famous poets. And the AAP has a list of 30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month, including attending a poetry reading, buying a book of poetry for a school or public library, and watching a poetry movie (See Slam, if you haven’t yet—Rated R.).
We need to continue creating opportunities for all youth—and especially youth with mental health needs—to create and share poetry. Without it, it would have been harder to break through my isolation and stay afloat through adolescence. Plus, it makes the world a more beautiful place. And we need that, now more than ever.
- Youth Speaks – Nonprofit presenter of spoken word education, youth development, and presentation programs
- Art from Ashes – Denver-based creative programs with workshops that offer young people access to the arts and to their creative power while addressing risk factors among struggling young people
- TeenInk.com – Online and print magazine for youth publishing poetry, fiction, nonfiction, reviews, artwork, photography, and more
- TheBluePencil.net – edited and produced by the students in the Creative Writing Program at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, located in Natick, Massachusetts. The magazine seeks to publish the best literary work in English by young writers (12–18) around the world.
- Poetry Slam, Inc. – Nonprofit organization that oversees the international coalition of poetry slams
By Eric Cline, Program Coordinator at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development