The great 18th-century writer Dr. Samuel Johnson, who suffered from severe bouts of depression, said: “the only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life or better to endure it.”

Taking Johnson’s phrase as a starting point, this course considers how poems, plays, and novels can help us understand and cope with times of deep emotional strain.

Along the way, you’ll hear from doctors, who offer a medical perspective, and from people who have turned to literature at moments of crisis, including such well-known figures as Melvyn Bragg, Mark Haddon, Sir Ian McKellen and Stephen Fry.

What topics will you cover?

Together, we’ll explore six themes:

  1. Stress: In poetry, the word “stress” refers to the emphasis of certain syllables in a poem’s meter. How might the metrical “stresses” of poetry help us to cope with the mental and emotional stresses of modern life?
  2. Heartbreak: Is heartbreak a medical condition? What can Sidney’s sonnets and Austen’s Sense and Sensibility teach us about suffering and recovering from a broken heart?
  3. Bereavement: The psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously proposed that there are five stages of grief. How might Shakespeare’s Hamlet and poems by Wordsworth and Hardy help us to think differently about the process of grieving?
  4. Trauma: PTSD or “shellshock” has long been associated with the traumatic experiences of soldiers in World War 1. How is the condition depicted in war poetry of the era? Can poems and plays offer us an insight into other sources of trauma, including miscarriage and assault?
  5. Depression and Bipolar: The writer Rachel Kelly subtitles her memoir Black Rainbow “how words healed me – my journey through depression”. Which texts have people turned to during periods of depression, and why? What can we learn from literature about the links between bipolar disorder and creativity?
  6. Ageing and Dementia: One of the greatest studies of aging in English Literature is Shakespeare’s, King Lear. Is it helpful to think about this play in the context of dementia? Why are sufferers of age-related memory loss often still able to recall the poems they have learned “by heart”?

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you'll be able to...

  • Explore how poems, plays, and novels can help us understand and cope with times of deep emotional strain.
  • Engage in leading research into mental health and wellbeing.
  • Develop confidence in exploring the different forms of literature and their impact on wellbeing.

Who is the course for?

This course is open to anyone with an interest in literature or mental health. No previous experience or qualifications are required. The reading load will be flexible, and you will have the opportunity to exchange ideas and feelings via the online discussions with other learners.

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Last updated March 12, 2018
This course is Online
Start Date
Jan. 2020
6 weeks
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Start Date
Jan. 2020
End Date
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Jan. 2020

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