O'Connor '14 Investigating Therapeutic Value of Creative Writing
August 14, 2014
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— It’s Sunday morning at the Addiction Recovery Center at Advocate
BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, and Colleen O’Connor ’14 (Palatine, Ill.) is writing
a letter she will never mail.
O’Connor is leading a creative writing group for all the patients on the unit. She
is investigating creative writing as an affordable mental health intervention as one
of this year’s recipients of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Re-Centering the Humanities grant for student scholars at Illinois Wesleyan University.
The story of the never-to-be-mailed letter began when O’Connor interned at PATH Crisis
Center as an Illinois Wesleyan student. She regularly spoke with callers who needed
help coping with the symptoms of mental illness. Unfortunately, many of the callers
could not afford to see a therapist regularly.
“For those with few resources, creative writing may provide a low-cost alternative
for the management of persistent mental health disorders,” said O’Connor, who double
majored in psychology and English-Writing. “For this project, I was interested in investigating how creative writing can best
be used as a low-cost supplementary aid or replacement for traditional therapy techniques.”
Although the study of creative writing as a therapeutic technique is a relatively
recent pursuit, research suggests that a variety of techniques including expressive
writing, autobiography and journaling can help to ease symptoms of both mental and
physical ailments, according to O’Connor. “Many health professionals have begun to
use creative writing with their patients to encourage them to explore their thoughts
and feelings between sessions,” she said.
In her new job as a case manager in the Addiction Recovery Center at Advocate BroMenn,
O’Connor leads daily group therapy and behavioral health workshops for the patients
on the unit. She began leading the creative writing groups as a part of her Mellon
grant research to investigate various forms of writing as therapy.
“If my group designs are successful, they will hopefully be integrated into the Illinois
Institute for Addiction Recovery (IIAR) curriculum and implemented at other branches
of IIAR in the state,” said O’Connor, who is mentored by Assistant Professor of Psychology
For now, however, O’Connor looks forward to her weekly writing sessions. “I am often
surprised by how quickly my patients become willing to talk openly about sensitive
topics when prompted by thoughtful questions and a caring facilitator,” said O’Connor.
“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that I can’t disconnect emotionally
if I want to encourage my patients to feel comfortable being vulnerable.
“I complete the exercises alongside the patients and share my answers, too,” she added.
“If I want my patients to be honest with me, with their peers, and with themselves,
I have to be willing to be honest, too.”
So O’Connor and the group make lists of character traits that they like (or don’t
like) and draft letters to people who will never read them. It’s part of therapy to
help patients identify feelings, recognize recurrent thoughts and address unresolved
O’Connor plans to work for a few more years before pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology.
“The Mellon grant has reinforced for me that I am a scholar at heart, and I have been
delighted by the opportunity to spend time foraging for research, taking notes, and
drafting new designs for groups,” she said. “Most of all, I have been blessed to be
able to see my work make a genuine difference in the daily lives of my patients, who
can use these skills after they leave our unit and start the next leg of their journey
on the road to recovery.”