Number 28 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' highlights the role of poetry in easing depression...

Depression is often misunderstood as just being sad. But in reality, depression is more long-term, more profound and potentially more damaging than the unhappiness we all feel from time to time.

Depression is becoming increasingly common. According to data published in 2017, one in ten 25 to 64-year-olds in Britain report that they are living with it. This is one of the highest rates in Western world.

Another study at the end of last year by the UK Council for Psychotherapy showed that rates of moderate to extreme anxiety and depression among working people has hit a record high, rising by nearly a third in the last four years.

There is clearly a need to find new ways to combat depression. Depending on the severity of depression, common treatments can include medication and/or talking therapies, like counselling. But there is one activity that is rarely explored, even though the evidence suggests it is highly effective.

In 1996, Dr Robin Philipp, a consultant in occupational and public health at Bristol Royal Infirmary, found 75% of a group of 196 people with mental health problems gained an emotional release from writing or reading poetry.

A number of people with depressive disorders and anxiety have been able to wean themselves off benzodiazepine tranquillisers such as Valium.

Dr Robin Philipp

Two-thirds of the people who took part in the study said they felt calmer after a poetry session. And 7% said they were able to wean themselves off anti-depressants by using poetry, in conjunction with the help of their GP.

At the time, Dr Philipp estimated that if 7% of patients could stop taking depression medications the savings to the NHS could be £190,000 annually. But since then, the number of prescriptions for anti-depressants has risen dramatically, as has the price of the drugs. The NHS currently spends around £267 million a year on antidepressant pills.

This now means that if poetry were a more available treatment for depression, not only could the lives of millions of people be transformed but the potential saving to the NHS would be in the region of £19 million.

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