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Poetry to Support Health and Social Care Practice

Engaging with poetry might be the last thing you thought you would be doing when you enrolled on a health or social care related course. However, poetry has been used in lots of ways to support students in social work, nursing and medicine as an innovative way to support thinking about practice. For example, in nursing education, poetry, both published and student-authored, has been successfully used to support students to reflect on their experiences. 

This approach can be helpful when trying to reduce negative feelings associated with reflective writing and has been shown to support personal growth. 

As you progress through your programme, you will see that a lot of learning that you undertake is through your experiences. For example, you can read about how to deal with challenging situations in a textbook, but the reality can be somewhat different, as we will see later through a poem written by the poet Julia Darling

This learning is known as experiential or reflective learning and is a core requirement of regulatory bodies such as the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the Health and Care Professions Council.  Even  if  you are not enrolled on a ‘professional’ programme, learning from experiences is a very important aspect of working with others, whatever your discipline, and supports development  in communication, teamwork and leadership. 

Through your reflectionmodifications and improvements to practice can be made, making it an important process for your development. However, reflection can also help you to explore your own  feelings  about things  and support the processing of difficult emotions.  Sometimes it might be difficult to explain our feelings to others, although writing on a page can be a private activity which we don’t need to share. 

This is where poetry comes in! 

Sometimes, speaking about issues can be difficult, whereas exploring ideas through poems can help us to process our feelings and make sense of them. 

We can also enjoy poems written by others to help us to see their perspective. Understanding others’ perspectives is important when caring for people or working in teams and is an important component of empathy. 
Empathy occurs when we not only understand others’ perspectives but reflect that understanding back  to  them,  enabling  us  to  connect  with  their  feelings.  Reading  poems  can  open  us  up  to  different  perspectives, so they might not be so surprising when we are faced with them in real life. Let’s now look at some poems written by people who have been in contact with health and social care professionals. 

Activity 1: Read the following poem ‘Health Check’ by Penny Feinstein. This poem is written from the service user point of view

Health Check

Shorter by two inches, you tell me,
wider by…a distance;
and my cholesterol, the wrong sort,
makes you knit your pencilled brows
and ‘Tut!’

You batter me with measurements
– your articles of faith – that sum up
my unfitness. ‘Life choices’ you coo,
but I hear One hundred lines
to be written in your lunch hour.

What do you want? Isn’t it enough
that I can walk the gritstone edge among rocks
green with lichen in the flat winter light,
the bare birch woods on the slope below shimmying like drifts of purple smoke?

You are so fearful of death! You would have me
clamber into my nineties and think the job well done,
when they would feed me khaki pap on a plastic spoon
and tuck my grey fringe of my face with a little girl hair slide –
‘My, aren’t we pretty today!’

After you have read the poem, make some notes on how this made you feel

Now consider the writer’s perspective. What message is she trying to convey in this poem?

What do you think the writer is saying about professional communication in this poem?

Did this poem challenge any assumptions you might have held about health and social well being?

The poem might seem quite humorous on first reading although, it says something about societal views on ageing. What wider societal perspectives do you think are being shared through this poem? For example, what is the writer saying about ageing?


Activity 1 introduced you to a poem written by a service user attending a health check. 

Through it, you were able to explore concepts such as empathy, communication and ageing in a healthcare setting. 

The next poem was written by the poet Julia Darling, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 38. In the poetry collection, Sudden Collapses in Public Places, rather than focusing on the loss often associated with a cancer diagnosis, Darling explores the details of her life with humour and compassion. She described her aim in writing the poems as a way to, ‘explore metaphors or to find a  way to describe how it  feels  to have advanced breast  cancer, and to let the body rather than the head be in charge. I am conversing with myself, trying to make sense of things.’ 

Darling’s poetry shows a re-evaluation of life with illness and a focus on what she now considers to be important. For example, in the poem ‘Don’t Worry’, she instructs the reader to ‘Behave badly… Eat six pies…. Beneath your feet worms aren’t worrying’.

Darling removes the mystery from living with a cancer diagnosis and enables the reader to imagine her life as she experienced it. 

It can sometimes be worrying when caring for people with a terminal illness or those in difficult situations; to know how to communicate with them. It can be easy to worry about saying the wrong thing or be concerned that our own emotions might be difficult to control. This suggests not a lack of empathy as such but an inability to find appropriate expressions for it. This is where poetry can be helpful, as it enables us to gain another’s perspective and take our time to process our thoughts and feelings about it. 

Engaging with poetry can provide a safe way to learn from someone who has been affected by a particular issue, so we can reflect on our feelings in a safe environment rather than face to face in real life. 

Read the poem ‘How to Behave with the Ill’, which provides a set of ‘instructions’ for health and social care professionals about communication. On this occasion, the writer has a cancer diagnosis, although these ideas are relevant to many situations: 

How to Behave With The Ill 

Approach us assertively, try
not to cringe or sidle, it makes us fearful.
Rather walk straight up and smile.
 Do not touch us unless invited, particularly don’t squeeze upper arms,
 or try to hold our hands. Keep your head erect. 
Don’t bend down, or lower your voice.
 Speak evenly. Don’t say 
‘How are you?’ in an underlined voice. Don’t say, I heard that you were very ill. 
This makes the poorly paranoid. 
Be direct, say ‘How’s your cancer?’ Try not to say how well we look. 
compared to when you met in Safeway’s.
 Please don’t cry, or get emotional, and say how dreadful it all is. 
Also (and this is hard I know) try not to ignore the ill, or to scurry
 past, muttering about a bus, the bank. 
Remember that this day might be your last and that it is a miracle that any of
us stands up, breathes, behaves at all. 

Consider the Poem ‘ How to Behave with the Ill’

Having read ‘How to Behave with the Ill’, what do you think is the main message that Darling is trying to convey?

Did any of the messages in this poem surprise you?

The poem has a lot to say about non-verbal communication e.g. smiling and keeping your ‘head erect’ when speaking to people in difficult situations. Non-verbal communication is a skill which takes practice and requires us to be aware of our physical state when communicating with others.