Writing for Mental Health
"As the number of studies increased, it became clear that writing was a far more powerful tool for healing than anyone
— Dr. James W. Pennebaker
"you do not have to learn.
how to love yourself.
you just have to remember.
there was never anything wrong with you
to begin with."
— Nayyirah Waheed
The Power of Girls* Writing Together
*Supporting the Social, Emotional and Mental Health of Girls & Gender-Expansive Youth
By Elizabeth Perlman, Founder & Executive Director
Part 1: The Challenge
The Atlantic recently published an excellent article on “the epidemic of sadness and depression in young people,” aptly titled, “Why Are American Teens So Sad?” It’s a good question, an important question, and one for which—I am proud to say—we actually have a creative antidote.
First, the context:
As Derek Thompson writes, “The United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental-health crisis. From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high school students who say they feel ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness’ rose from 26 percent to 44 percent… This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.”
You can find the evidence of it everywhere, from within your own home and community to this Washington Post article, in which the American Academy of Pediatrics has declared a “national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.” And just this December, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new Surgeon General’s Advisory, “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” in which he writes, “The challenges today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate.” He also notes that “one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.”
In an article on the effect of social media on girls, “The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls," the author Johnathan Haidt wrote, “Much more than for boys, adolescence typically heightens girls’ self-consciousness about their changing body and amplifies insecurities about where they fit in their social network.” And in “How Puberty Kills Girls’ Confidence,” the author Claire Shipman writes that while all teens experience a blow to their confidence during adolescence, it’s “nothing like what girls experience.” One culprit, she notes, is the tendency of adults to “encourage and reward girls’ people-pleasing, perfectionistic behavior.” Another issue is that, “many girls are also wise enough by the age of 12 to see that the world still treats men and women differently—that dings their confidence, too.” For girls and gender-expansive youth—especially minority youth—the deck is stacked against them, which is why so many girls are struggling with depression, anxiety and a crippling lack of confidence. It’s a difficult situation. But there’s also cause for hope.
Like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, our courageous and intuitive young women are illuminating what needs to be seen, pointing us toward the changes that need to happen throughout society for all of us. In the words of Melinda Gates, “If you want to lift up humanity, empower women.”
Part 2: The Opportunity
I believe that the current youth mental health crisis is actually an incredible opportunity for healing and growth, a chance for us to implement long-overdue cultural changes, to start actively valuing, teaching and supporting emotional intelligence, self-compassion, effective communication, and all the vital, everyday practices we all need to remain mentally and physically healthy. That means opening the door to more diverse modalities of emotional support.
In a recent New Yorker article on teen suicide, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that up to two-thirds of depressed teens aren’t getting the mental health support they need. This is attributed to several causes, including the fact that there are “too few child psychologists and psychiatrists.” Another limiting force is the cost and stigma attached to seeing a therapist. But that's where creative writing programs can step in, programs like ours at The Intuitive Writing Project.
In the words of one of our teen parents, the clinical psychologist Dr. Temre Uzuncan, “Kids need access to a third space, some place between a therapist's office and a class room, where they can process their experiences freely and be supported by their peers. That's what they find when they write together.” Her observation echos the recommendations by the Surgeon General, that we, as a society, need to support "positive, safe, and affirming educational environments” in which we “promote healthy development, such as social and emotional learning.” And that is what The Intuitive Writing Project has been providing teens for the past ten years.
At The Intuitive Writing Project, we are dedicated to creating a positive, safe space for girls and gender-expansive youth to find their voice, speak their truth and own their story. I created this organization because it’s what I needed when I was young. But the larger truth is that it’s what we all need, at every age, because we all need to be listened to and validated.
What we offer, in a nutshell, is a fun, creative and highly effective answer to the question of girls’ mental health. And because we are a writing program, we offer this support through storytelling, using The Amherst Writing Method to affirm that everyone has their own unique voice and everyone receives only positive feedback, based on the strength and authenticity of their words.
Part 3: The Healing
One of our favorite ways to offer positive feedback is to repeat back the words, phrases, and ideas that felt especially meaningful to us, as listeners, as in “I love how the writer said _______,” or “I loved the line about the _______.” It sounds simple and it is. It’s simple but also revolutionary.
I don’t know of any other environment—outside a therapist’s office—where we can receive this level of empathic attunement and mirroring. As the psychologist Alice Miller once observed, every child “needs respect, echoing, understanding, empathy, and mirroring.” In fact, she said “a child can experience her feelings only when there is somebody there who accepts her fully, understands her, and supports her.”
Imagine for a moment how it would have been for you when you were a teen, if you could have written about whatever you were going through—through the lens of fiction, non-fiction or poetry—sharing things you couldn’t share anywhere else, knowing you were in the presence of an unconditionally supportive community, a community of your peers who would really listen to you, empathize with and validate your experience, and then affirm the strength of your voice.
The effects of this experience are nothing short of life-changing, resulting in greater self-confidence, self-awareness, and emotional resilience, not to mention the life-long social connections that come from being part of such a joyful and encouraging community. As the researcher Dr. James Pennebaker has found, this kind of writing and sharing is how we heal and grow. His studies show that the simple act of telling one’s story reorganizes the experience in the brain, reducing stress and increasing a sense of personal agency. When things happen to us, they can feel overwhelming. But when we have time to reflect on what happened, to talk about what happened, and to organize the narrative through writing, we reclaim our voice and our power. It’s empowering for everyone, but it’s especially empowering girls and for female-identifying youth.
Part 4: The Empowerment
Every week, in every class, I get to see the evidence of empowerment. Girls often show up looking beat-down and exhausted, but as they settle in to write, I watch them relax and unwind, eventually sitting up taller and coming back to life. They are enlivened because we create a space where they are free to be fully alive—fully themselves and fully expressed—and to be valued and celebrated for it. I think this is the most transformative gift of writing, that it reveals who we are on the inside—empowering us to be our truest, bravest, and most authentic self.
I have learned that much of what torments girls is our hyper-focus on externalities: looks, grades, social status and impossible ideas of “perfection.” But when girls write, they connect to their inner strength, their personal values, and their unique humanity, three foundations of lasting self-esteem. When girls write, they express the truth of who we really are—and they learn that who they are matters.
All too often, girls are isolated with their thoughts, their homework, and their phones. Whenever we feel alone, the world does indeed feel dark. But when we get the chance to connect with others—to tell our story and listen to the stories of others—we realize that we are all the same, that we are all connected, and that we can be a source of strength for everyone around us. If there’s one thing that I hear most often in all our classes, it’s girls responding to what they just heard another girl write about, always with a mixture of surprise and relief: “Oh my god, I feel the same!” they say.
Of all the benefits of girls writing together, that may be the greatest gift of all. As C.S. Lewis observed, we read—and write—to know we’re not alone.
Part 5: The Antidote
To speak your truth, to share something real, raw and vulnerable, and to have it heard, affirmed and celebrated, is to walk out of the darkness and into the light. In the light of the sun, we all get the chance to grow. And bloom. And thrive.
We hope you will join us, to support all girls and gender-expansive youth, making sure they have the time and space they need to write their story and declare what they know to be true.