How Social Workers Can Use Words to Heal

Jun 26, 2024

Social workers can use the printed word, books, and poetry to empower clients, promote social justice, and offer hope

By Heather Rose Artushin, LISW-CP

People have long understood the healing power of words. In ancient Egypt, intentional words of healing were written on papyrus, then dissolved into a solution so that it could be physically ingested, like medicine. Today, a growing body of research confirms that reading and writing can be therapeutic, even reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Reading fiction in particular builds emotional literacy and empathy, research shows.

The International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy (IFBPT) champions this approach, offering certification for social workers and other professionals interested in specializing in this creative modality. Owner of Change Your Narrative consulting and training practice, Nancy S. Scherlong, LCSW-R, CHHC, SEP, PTR/CJT-CM is a licensed clinical social worker and the current president of the IFBPT.

Scherlong discovered a passion for doing healing work with words when she was an MFA student with a background in creative writing and psychology. “I was going to do this work as a visiting artist,” Scherlong explained, “and all my friends at the time were therapists and suggested that I get a social work degree. I found that doing this work through the therapy door, for me, is a more intuitive way.”

Scherlong explains biblio/poetry therapy as the use of reading materials, like a book well-matched to a client’s circumstance, can be therapeutic with discussion or reflective writing. When it comes to poetry, Scherlong focuses on the use of metaphor. “Metaphor is another language specifically for trauma,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t have words for unspeakable things that have happened to them, and with metaphor they have privacy and a secret language to say, or not say, what they’re trying to convey. I think story is a word I use a lot, because it’s familiar.”

Nicholas Mazza Ph.D., licensed clinical social worker and Professor and Dean Emeritus at the Florida State University College of Social Work, has been involved in the practice, research, and teaching of poetry therapy for over 50 years. He is the author of Poetry Therapy; Theory and Practice, 3rd Edition (Routledge; 2022), and president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy (NAPT).

“Poetry therapy has emerged as an independent field that is inclusive of bibliotherapy, narrative therapy, expressive writing, and journal therapy, all of which maintain their own independent field of study and practice,” Dr. Mazza explained. “Poetry and narrative can be powerful tools in promoting social justice. Poetic approaches have been and continue to be used to promote awareness of such critical problems as domestic violence, poverty, racism, sexism, and so much more. Poetry lends voice to the oppressed and can be empowering. Consider the invasion of Ukraine, gun violence, oppression, and women’s rights as just a few examples. The writing and sharing of poetry offer hope during troubled times.”

Whether social workers use books, poetry, and writing exercises with individual clients in individual therapy, with groups of nursing home residents, or patients in a hospital setting, the possibilities are endless. Sherry Reiter, PhD, LCSW, PTR-CM of The Creative “Righting” Center, has worked in private practice for over 30 years. “Bibliotherapy gets the maximum mileage out of words, powered by our own voices, fueled by our needs to be seen and heard in a meaningful way,” she said. “One of the many extraordinary moments was when my 87-year-old client held a published chapbook with all the poems she had written in therapy. It was called ‘This Is My Life’ by It’s-Never-2-Late-Productions. The author could not stop smiling and a feeling of pride and triumph overcame her feelings of helplessness and depression.”

Scherlong used this approach with children in foster care who had endured what she described as “horrific losses.” The results were powerful. “They would write letters to people no longer here, read them out loud, and write imaginary responses,” she said. “That dialogue ended up being healing.” Social workers can consider creative ways to tailor reading and writing prompts to a client’s unique situation, offering a non-threatening opportunity for expression.

In today’s post-pandemic world, the chance to heal through storytelling is something many people are discovering on their own. “As hard as the pandemic was, people have really started writing their own stories, and memoir is at an all-time high, and self-publishing is at an all-time high,” Scherlong said. “People are discovering on their own the healing power of words, and writing their stories.”

Social workers seeking more information on ways to incorporate books, poetry, and journaling into their work with clients can pursue continuing education courses in biblio/poetry therapy, seek one-on-one consultation, or pursue certification through the IFBPT. The certification process is a mentorship program, and according to Scherlong more than half of current mentors are social workers. “I think social work pairs well with expressive therapy modalities because it is already strengths-based, holistic, and affirms what’s right,” she said.

More than anything, viewing our work with people through the lens of storytelling can be a humbling, inspiring experience as a social worker. “I see their story before I see their problem,” Scherlong shared. “Stories can always be changed, by writing a new ending, or revising the middle, or shifting an arc of a narrative. It’s an affirmative process for people.”

Learn more by visiting the IFBPT website at https://ifbpt.org/ and the NAPT website at https://poetrytherapy.org/

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