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How much does Journalling help mental health and wellness?

Journalling for mental health and wellness

Sylvia Plath, an acclaimed writer, began her lifelong habit of keeping a diary at the tender age of eleven, continuing until her untimely death at thirty in 1963. Her journals were a chronicle of her life, covering a wide range of topics, from sexuality and school to her complex relationship with her mother. One recurring theme was the conflict between her ambitions for a successful career and her longing to be the ideal wife and homemaker. Plath wrote about her publishing triumphs with the same enthusiasm as she did about the elaborate meals she prepared for her husband. Plath utilized her journals to celebrate her successes, admonish herself during failures, and constantly push herself to achieve more.

A therapy that has benefits

Throughout history, individuals have discovered that writing can provide solace during challenging times. While journaling has been a longstanding practice, its role as a therapeutic tool gained prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic. As countries enforced lockdowns, many turned to journaling as a form of therapy, offering a space to express their frustrations and mourn the difficulties of living in unprecedented circumstances. According to Vox, journal sales surged by 37.5 percent during the initial four months of the pandemic alone, reflecting the widespread adoption of journaling as a valuable and popular tool. However, if so many people are using journals to process their emotions, shouldn’t we all be feeling better?

How it started

The concept of diaries, or journals, as we know them today originated in Japan during the tenth or eleventh century. In the Western world, they emerged during the early modern period. Samuel Pepys, a renowned diarist, gained fame for his detailed accounts of the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire, but he also delved into personal matters, documenting fights with his wife and his numerous infidelities.

Journaling continued to grow in popularity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, it was not until the early nineteenth century, when several diaries, including Pepys’s, were published, that the practice truly exploded. In 1966, American psychotherapist Ira Progoff introduced the Intensive Journal Method, realizing early on that journaling could significantly improve mental health by reducing anxiety and depression symptoms and enhancing emotional regulation. Furthermore, evidence suggests that maintaining a regular journaling practice can enhance memory function. Since Progoff’s pioneering work, various therapeutic journaling systems have emerged. One notable system is Kathleen Adams’s methodology, presented in her bestselling book “Journal to the Self,” published in 1990. Subsequently, Adams worked in a psychiatric hospital, where she ran an in-patient journaling program for women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many of whom had experienced severe childhood trauma. Although these women had previously attempted journaling, they often struggled with re-traumatization when engaging in the process.

It’s become popular!

In the years following Adams’s book release, therapeutic journaling has gained tremendous popularity. There are now resources tailored to diverse social conditions, such as guided journals for soldiers, Catholics, students, grieving parents, and numerous other groups. However, like many other aspects associated with the wellness movement, using journaling for mental health has a double-edged nature. While it can be helpful, it cannot replace proper care overseen by licensed professionals. Moreover, it can perpetuate the notion that the right notebook and routine can solve all our mental health problems.

The Limitations

However, mental health treatment systems are often trite with issues. Talk therapy and counselling are not affordable for all. Beyond issues of scarcity and cost, navigating the system can be incredibly complex. Hence, I can’t help but feel a tinge of frustration when discussions about mental health suggest journaling as a solution for struggling individuals. While everyone has some responsibility for their own well-being, engaging in mood-boosting activities like walking, bathing, or exercising certainly has its place in daily routines. However, what does it say about our existing mental health support systems if so many people are left to piece together their own solutions?

Sylvia Plath’s writing is highly regarded, but she is arguably most famous for her death by suicide. Often, her death is portrayed as inevitable or fated. However, the reality is that she actively fought to survive her crisis. In her final months, she wrote prolifically—letters to friends and family, fragments of a second novel, the poems she believed would make her name, and a final journal, which was later destroyed by her husband.

Journalling is only part of the solution

What often goes unnoticed in her story is the fact that Plath pursued care until her last moments. She attended regular doctor’s appointments, tried new medications, and sought support from friends. She did everything we advise individuals to do when grappling with their mental health.

During her final days, Plath was on a waitlist for in-patient psychiatric treatment. However, her doctor’s attempts to secure her admission at multiple hospitals were met with the response that all beds were occupied. Ultimately, her writing couldn’t save her. She needed genuine, substantial medical care. An individual armed solely with a journal can only do so much.

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