Imran Khan is a poet that teaches about mental health through the form of creative writing. I sat down with him to talk writing, mental health, and why the two are so closely linked.
How did you get started writing?
When I was about eleven, my sister talent scouted me after she read a poem I wrote for a school project. She was about 17 and commissioned me to write cards for her boyfriends. She pretended that the sentiments were hers, rather than from a kid who was writing for chocolate bars. Once, she paid me in four chocolate bars which, to this day, is one of my most generous remunerations.
How has writing benefitted your mental health?
I threw myself into writing poems when I was in early adulthood. I’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and used alcohol and sex to quell the dark places my mind took me to. It didn’t occur to me how much damage I was doing to myself and the people around me. Poetry allowed me to externalise anxiety in a safe way, and I found the process of creating something transformative. It was something I would reach towards to cope with difficult feelings. That’s still the case now. Although I’m unbelievably better compared to how I’ve been at my worst, I still have quite bad episodes from time to time, but I’ve become more capable of dealing with them through my writing.
Why do you think the arts is beneficial for young people?
In young childhood, through to to adolescence and adulthood, we can find it very difficult to express what’s going on internally. This leaves us feeling isolated, exacerbating any mental health issues. With young people having to come to terms with all sorts of expectations, from their peers and from society, the isolation and anxiety can be crippling.
In my time working with the Samaritans and Amnesty UK, I’ve learnt that being creative can be a great tool in helping young people to focus their minds on a different dialogue until, by the time they’ve finished their work, they’re better equipped to deal with the difficult emotions.
Why do you think anxiety and other mental health issues are on the rise in young people in particular?
In Britain, as a society, we’re becoming more physically isolated everyday. Social media has meant that we’re constantly receiving information on how we should look, what we should achieve and how we should live our lives. With young people struggling to come to terms with the pressures society places them under, this can be really damaging. I think, as well as furthering these external pressures, social media also facilitates a greater sense of individualism, where we can become absorbed in our own little worlds and heighten the significance of the difficulties we face as individuals. We can lose perspective. I think that this social shift has played a massive role in the rise. Also, as a society, we don’t treat mental illnesses well enough. In the UK, there just aren’t enough resources put into supporting people with mental health issues, for both young and old.
How can the arts help with mental health issues?
My hope is that arts institutions will be backed, through government funding, to engage with young people in schools. Whether it is poetry, painting, dance or any type of art, I think arts institutions can be crucial in helping young people to articulate what they’re going through. We all need to express ourselves in some way and I think, as emotional beings, the arts have a role to play in supporting young people suffering from mental health issues. Talking therapies aren’t for everyone, and some young people may struggle to open up about what they’re going through.
Do you feel UK schools do enough to support the arts? What more could be done?
Teachers from UK schools have such a tough ride. They’re shackled by pressures to deliver students with good grades, meaning arts education has suffered. It’s always disheartening when I visit schools and find the curriculum weighted towards getting kids to identify similies and plosive sounds, rather than enthusing them about all the great things art can bring to their lives. It’s just quicker and easier to tick off an identified sound, rather than mark creative work. I didn’t write a poem once at school and I don’t think much has changed, because the outlook is the same: good grades over a nurturing education system.
I think a significant shift needs to take place where teachers aren’t so overstretched, and the schooling system nurtures the needs of individuals rather than produce statistics that look good on a graph.
What advice would you give to people who want to get into writing but feel it’s inaccessible to them?
My advice is to just write. It doesn’t have to be your best work. Just thinking about what you’d put down on paper is beneficial in itself, even if you don’t get any writing done.
I try to tell myself that I’d get at least fifteen minutes of creative writing done a day, even if it’s in the middle of the night when my little boy is pulling my ear and my little girl is mumbling in her sleep.
What are you working on right now?
Workshop material. I have some poetry sessions coming up, which is very exciting. I’m also putting together a chapbook which, all being well, will be published some time this year.
My ten-year-old girl also wants me to co-perform our original rap song in front of my fiancé (wish me luck!) The words are done, I just need to get fit enough to do the dance moves.