Let’s talk…Poetry and Depression with Rachel Kelly

Rachel Kelly suffers from depression. She is a journalist and mother with a long standing interest in mental health. Rachel worked at The Times for ten years as a reporter, feature writer and columnist on alternative health. Her long-standing interest in poetry led her to co-found the bestselling app of children’s poetry iF Poems, and edit its companion anthology, IF: A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every Possibility.

This entertaining and delightful anthology should be on the shelf of every child in Britain.  ~ Carol Ann Duffy, Poet laureate

Rachel’s new book ‘Black Rainbow’ describes how poetry helped her overcome depression and has been published by Hodder & Stoughton in April 2014 in aid of the charities SANE and United Response. Rachel seizes the power of poetry and takes her reader through her own journey, illustrating throughout how words can heal.

Rachel vividly and movingly describes the profound impact mental illness can have, not only on the person suffering but all those around them… But what makes Black Rainbow special is that it isn’t just a beautifully written exploration of the ravages of depression. It is also a hymn to the power of poetry to provide solace and a rich, inspiring resource for anyone who is coping with the challenges that life brings… not just maintaining mental health. ~ Su Sayer CBE, Chief Executive of United Response

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What has been your own experience of depression?

I had such severe physical symptoms that I was howling and wanted to commit suicide. I went from being mildly anxious to be doubled up with pain. At first I thought I was having a heart attack, my palpitations were so wild. My stomach was knotted, my head felt as if vicious wasps were stinging my brain. Every bit of me hurt in an acute, dynamic, physical agony. It felt like I was hurtling at high speed, trapped in a crashing plane: I had to hold onto my mother or husband at all times to stop myself from falling.

How were your relationships affected?

My husband and my mother proved very supportive. My mother stayed with us much of the time when I was acutely unwell, and my husband tried to look after me while continuing to work. At the time, I was entirely selfish. I wanted them to be there at all times as I was so frightened. I went from being an equal to my husband to be totally dependent, and the same with my mother. Now I’m better I realise how hard it would have been for them. I was devoted to both of them before, but my devotion is even stronger now as I owe my life to them. The other main relationships were with my children. When I was first ill, we had two little boys and they were sufficiently young that I don’t think they knew what was going on. (They were both under three at the time.) During my second breakdown, the children were older – Edward was nearly nine. I think he found it very hard not to have his Mum around. It was frightening for them to see their mother so unwell. Even now, if I’m unwell with a cold, and I reassure them that I’m better, our younger daughter sometimes says ‘Oh, Mummy, you’re going to die.’

What lead you to poetry and Black Rainbow?

I have been a poetry lover since I was a girl, tending more towards a personal and intuitive appreciation of it rather than an academic assessment of its value. Great poetry for me has always been a case of the poet speaking directly to the reader in his or her present circumstances. When I had my first depressive episode, my mother read to me: I would repeat healing lines such as ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ with her. It helped me believe there was a point to the suffering. As I improved, I found I could read myself: it gave me great consolation, and distracted me from the circular negative thinking which is characteristic of depression. Black Rainbow began as a series of letters and emails to friends who had asked me for recommendations of how to recover. I often added in a poem. They were going through troubled times and knew poetry had helped me. The idea of extending this to a wider audience and helping as many people as possible grew from that.

My strength is made perfect in weakness ~ Corinthians 12:9

Soul bearing isn’t easy, what motivated you to put yourself “out there” with your own experience?

I felt I might be able to help others who suffer, and I wanted to write about some aspects of depression that I felt were misunderstood. I myself misunderstood depression before I was unwell. I thought it was a melancholy mood which affected those who were unhappy and have been through extreme hardship. And of course depression can be just that. But I hadn’t read much about my experience of depression – the physical pain, the sense of worthlessness and guilt – and the fact that it stemmed from anxiety rather than low mood. I don’t consider myself an unhappy person, but I’m certainly a worrier. Since I’ve written the book, other sufferers say they’ve had the same experience. I also wanted to share all the strategies that had helped me get better in the hope that those reading the book would find something that helps them, be it diet, therapy, drugs, exercise, or healing words. There are the 40 poems in the book which were my lifelines and I hope will help others.

Tell us about the #healingwords campaign, and also your workshops?

The #healingwords campaign is something I’m working on with SANE, the mental health charity. It encourages people to share with others the poems or prose extracts which have been of particular help to them in hard times. They do this by sending their #healingwords to the SANE site or my own website , and one of us would then upload them to our sites for others to see. My #healingwords workshops are for those who are suffering depression and want to perhaps try a different approach. After all poetry is free and has no side effects. I work with small groups in hospitals and schools, it’s very informal and relaxed. A group of us meet and I bring a selection of poems which have helped me. I invite those in the group to read them and to discuss their reactions. Often people tell me the poem perfectly describes how they feel, or provides a different more positive story for them to leave with. We discuss how healing images can help, the use of healing mantras and positive affirmations, and how writing your own poetry can be very therapeutic too. There’s scientific evidence for all this.

As well as the book there is a Black Rainbow App, how do you hope that will help others?

The app features everything that has helped me through depression, and is there for others at the push of a button. You might not feel well enough to read a book, but benefit from someone reading to you, just like my mother read to me: there is a wide selection of consolatory poems and prose extracts read aloud by renowned actors and broadcasters, suited to various stages of depression. Then there is advice for maintaining a healthy body: diet advice from nutrition experts to suit a variety of maladies; exercise advice, and guided relaxations and sleep audios. I intend for it to be a comprehensive guide to helping yourself, to go with the other treatments you may have received.

Westward, look, the land is bright ~ Winston Churchill

What’s next on the cards?

I’m happily continuing my #healingwords workshops, supporting my charities SANE and United Response, and writing about depression and strategies to beat it. And I’m working on another book – but it’s a secret! But it will be aimed again at trying to help people.

What advice do you have for those out there who have depression, in one form or another, in their lives?

I’m nervous of giving anyone direct advice as everyone is different and I would always recommend seeing your own GP. But my book is full of the strategies I used, with sections on diet, exercise, the help charities provide, how therapy can work, the drugs and of course 40 consoling and healing poems that might help you through.

Finally, what are your top five tips for self-love?

  1. Imagine you are talking to yourself as if you were talking to a frightened anxious child. We all have a child within us who needs to be nurtured and loved.
  2. Don’t think it’s silly to give yourself a good old-fashioned hug. Sometimes I grab a pillow and hug that close to myself too.
  3. Remember some healing mantras and phrases in your head which you can turn to in times of need. My favourites include ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ and ‘Westward, look, the land is bright’.
  4. We are all united by our common humanity and nobody is immune from our common suffering. Never imagine that anyone always finds life easy. You are not alone, nor were you meant to be.
  5. Simple pleasures are the last resort of the complicated man, or so thought Oscar Wilde. Reward yourself with simple pleasures – pause to smell the roses, luxuriate in washing your hands slowly with some gorgeous soap – and realise that the more you look after yourself, the more you will be able to look after others.

I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex. ~ Oscar Wilde


Further links:

Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me: My Journey Through Depression (All author proceeds are going to the charities Sane and United Response)



United Response

The Food Doctor

First Published 2014/05/17