Using expressive writing techniques to help Covid-19 healthcare workers overcome trauma

A project developed by a Kingston School of Art London researcher that aims to help people overcome trauma through expressive writing techniques is to be offered to healthcare professionals around the world who are on the front line of the Covid-19 crisis.

The methodology developed by Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing BA (Hons), Dr Meg Jensen and Dr Siobhan Campbell, senior lecturer of creative writing at the Open University, has previously been used to support military veterans and palliative care workers in the UK and refugees and victims of violence in conflict regions, most recently in Iraq and Lebanon.

Professor Jensen has now received £10,000 funding from a private UK based company, Viaro Energy, to make this support available to frontline healthcare workers during and after the Covid-19 pandemic by creating free web-based access to expressive writing materials in English, Italian and Arabic.

Expressive writing is a form of imaginative writing that allows people who have experienced difficult events to express their emotions in a regulated, safe way, enabling them to detach from those experiences by turning them into shareable stories. The process helps people to recover and increase their sense of well-being without the pain of reliving the event itself, or the danger of triggering those who may have undiagnosed traumatic disorders.

The Covid-19 crisis has placed healthcare workers around the world under extreme pressure and the impact on mental health has become increasingly evident, Professor Jensen explained.

Over and over again we have seen health care workers becoming distraught, and in some cases traumatized, by their daily work experiences."

Dr Meg Jensen, Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing BA (Hons)

One of the key issues for these healthcare workers was learning to cope with an overwhelming sense of failure, especially in the early days of the pandemic with so many patients coming in to already crowded hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

Healthcare workers, Professor Jensen learned, normally cope with the pain of losing patients by focussing on the far greater number of lives they have saved. At the height of the crisis, however, these workers were dealing with multiple, often simultaneously occurring deaths, were unable to take much needed breaks and faced uncertainty over the best courses of treatment to help the high numbers of sick and dying people they were treating daily.

These issues were compounded by the relatively unique scenario of being afraid for their own personal safety on a daily basis, Professor Jensen continued. "Workers were having to manage all these issues and care for patients while fearing for their own well-being and that of their close family and elderly relatives, and sometimes lacking the equipment to protect themselves. So the stress continued when they got home," she said.

In response to this growing need, Professor Jensen and Dr Campbell adapted the Expressive Writing methodology specifically for frontline healthcare workers. The project will also contribute to the growing body of evidence around the impact of the crisis on healthcare workers, and will be used to better understand how to support this vital but vulnerable group.

While there is a substantial evidence base for the therapeutic benefits of Expressive Writing, this is the first time the methodology has been adapted for and applied in a web-based format. Professor Jensen explained that the Expressive Writing methodology is ideal for this purpose, because it is an immediate technique that can be used by everyone, without risk.

Participants in the programme complete short, interesting, descriptive exercises designed to help them express whatever emotions they are feeling. These can either be written or recorded on a phone and submitted anonymously for feedback from the research team, or shared with other users if they choose. By focussing on the imaginative and expressive elements of storytelling, participants are supported in detaching themselves from difficult emotions, helping them move forward with a stronger sense of well-being.

The website, which will be launched next month, also contains information and links to further sources of psychological support for those who need it. Professor Jensen said that for many people, there is a huge benefit in simply sharing their stories. "Often what people need most is the opportunity and space to share their experiences, and feel validated," she said.

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