When the Doctor Prescribes Poetry



May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and a leading psychiatrist has just published a groundbreaking book filled with powerful poetic prescriptions to help strengthen mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist from Rockville, Maryland, who pioneered the use of light therapy for seasonal affective disorder, wrote Poetry Rx: How 50 Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life to raise awareness of the healing power of poetry.

“As a therapist, I have collected poems along the way that I thought had the power to heal, inspire, or at least bring joy,” he told The New York Times. Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School, chose poems that discuss dealing with loss, death, love, and other aspects of the human experience through the eyes and words of great poets like William Wordsworth, William Butler Years, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others.

In a world that has been so severely damaged by the pandemic, Rosenthal says “poetry can serve as a vaccine for the soul,” bringing in a brief retreat from the troubles and offering hope for the future. And the good news, is that poetry has no adverse side effects.

According to the Times, Dr. Rafael Campo, a physician from Harvard Medical School who is a poet himself, believes that poetry can help doctors become better healers.

“When we hear rhythmic language and recite poetry, our bodies translate crude sensory data into nuanced knowing — feeling becomes meaning,” he said.

Dr. Robert S. Carroll, a psychiatrist affiliated with UCLA, wrote a scientific paper on the healing power of poetry discussing its ability to tackle topics that, in our society, are often considered taboo. “For example, each of us is going to die, but we do not talk about dying,” he said. “We are all in the dialogue of illness, death and dying, whether or not we are talking about it. Poetry gives us ways to talk about it.”

In his book, Rosenthal deals with death with selection of poems, such as Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, and Emily Dickenson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” The expert points out the takeaways of each of the 50 poems included in his book.

In the case of dealing with death, he writes that Dickenson’s attitude of detachment can help people deal with end-of-life issues and says that Thomas’ rage is normal.

“Each person should be permitted to go through whatever emotional stages they need in order to come to terms with death,” says Rosenthal, adding that regular meditation can help train the mind to be prepared for the challenges of life.

Jane Brody, personal health columnist at the New York Times writes:

“Poems, I now realize, thanks to Dr. Rosenthal, can be a literary panacea for the pandemic. They let us know that we are not alone, that others before us have survived devastating loss and desolation and that we can be uplifted by the imagery and cadence of the written and spoken word.”

According to Dr. Rosenthal, “As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has closed down in many ways, depriving us of joy, companionship, love and adventure. Against this backdrop of loss and hardship, we are seeking novel remedies, and poetry is a surprisingly powerful remedy, not just for the moment but for our entire life. Poetry can serve both as a balm and a vaccine for the soul.”

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