On World Mental Health Day, a reminder of how literature can help understand others (and yourself)


On a rainy day, when I try to make my way through a muddy, rough road, a small patch of tar or concrete relieves me. Not because I don’t like walking in the rain, but this undisturbed stretch of road gives me something specific. It helps me stay the course without being totally messy in the uncertainty of the paths clogged with slush.

In a way, writing and reading give this sense of the definite, especially when the mind is undefined, blocked; when the days are dark and when afflictions of all kinds torment us. For centuries, people have looked to the wonders, imaginative liberation, and simple yet universal appeal of emotions that only literature can provide. As humans, we are looking for connection. And literature – whether it’s fiction, prose, or poetry – is that grand ballroom where we all end up meeting versions of ourselves and feel at peace because we’re not alone.

Reading and empathy

We already know that there is a well-established relationship between the therapeutic nature of the literature and well-being. And we don’t need to revisit that paradigm just because it’s World Mental Health Day. But the pandemic has brought to light some inherent truths. We have all experienced ambiguity in its cruelest form. We have witnessed in utter helplessness the loss, the fear, the pain and the anguish. Yes, none of these are new to our species.

But in my experience, the overwhelming nature of the pandemic has forced us to think even deeper about life, about health, and how the latter informs the former. The need to stay well has become paramount. So much so that it is reflected in the words we use now: in phrases like “stay well”, “take care of yourself” and “be kind to yourself”.

We are now using the term “mental health” with a little less hesitation than before, perhaps because the stigma associated with it has dissipated a bit. It is in this context that I think that literature has never been as present as it is today – how reading it can lead to general well-being because literature helps us understand ourselves better.

The novelist Shashi Deshpande, in “A writer’s perspective on literature, fiction and mental health”, published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, recognizes the cathartic aspect of writing and how it can contribute to our overall well-being. She observes: “As I write, I learn more and more about people, about human nature, I understand people like I never did before… By telling the stories of the people. others, we sometimes find ourselves.

The reader goes on the same journey of self-discovery when reading extraordinary writing, discovering new perspectives on empathy and understanding. There are ideas we can learn from fictional or poetic characters that could help us care for someone in a more meaningful way.

For example, reading about characters who suffer from dementia, and about characters who experience the trauma of seeing their loved ones experience it, could help us better understand the earth that suddenly slips under our feet in such circumstances. Some research even recommends literary fiction for nursing professionals, especially those dealing with dementia.

Literature and loss

One book that comes to mind in this context is A book of light: when a loved one has another spirit edited by Jerry Pinto. The stories mainly relate actual accounts of those who saw how their loved ones suffered. I don’t know what they felt as they wrote them down. But as a reader and as a person who has reviewed the book, I can only say that these authentic tales were (and are) necessary.

They moved me beyond belief and brought me great respect for all those who have faced “a different spirit”. Now, in the context of the pandemic, books like this have become all the more relevant. We need more.

We all know what it’s like to lose a loved one. Grief and loss come with overbearing and overwhelming emotions that take their toll on us. I have always found poetry to be my favorite place at times like this. WS Merwin’s poem, “Separation” to Me, is one of the most poignant representations of what the death or absence of someone can do to our mind: “Your absence ran through me / like a thread. through a needle. / Everything I do is sewn with its color.

A few years ago, I was puzzled when an old friend told me how much one of my poems had helped her when she mourned the passing of a loved one. Perhaps she was overly generous and a little one-sided – after all, I was a friend. But that moment crystallized for me what maybe I could do as a writer. If the words I write are genuine and can help another human being, I would consider myself successful. And I know that I am far from realizing this responsibility.

Empathy and compassion are not easy to understand or demonstrate in our day to day life. It takes a lot of courage, patience and strength. If a voice we hear through a poem or novel can show us the way and help us stay healthy, maybe we should listen. Be well, read, write. And not just on World Mental Health Day.

Anupama Raju is the author of Nine. Poet, literary journalist, communications professional and translator, she was a Charles Wallace Fellow at the University of Kent and writer in residence at the Intermondes Centers in La Rochelle.


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