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#OTGYpsi: Ypsilanti offers writing workshops as a path to mental wellness


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Rylee Barnsdale's Feature Article: Ypsi-based mental health writing workshops encourage healthy coping and community dialogue


EMU Office of Campus and Community Writing

Washtenaw County Health Department's "Wish You Knew" campaign

"Wish You Knew" campaign on Instagram


Cathy Shafran: You are listening to 89.1 WEMU. I'm Cathy Shafran, and this is On The Ground Ypsi. It is a program intended to bring in the stories of the Ypsilanti community, and we bring you On the Ground Ypsi in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. And today, the focus is on efforts in Washtenaw County to tackle growing mental health issues through various approaches, including through mental health writing. Today, I'm joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, whose report in the online news source this week is focused on a multi-pronged approach to destigmatizing and encouraging discussions on the struggles that many are facing, including through partnerships with the YpsiWrites program that encourages writing for mental wellness. Rylee, thanks so much for joining us.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Cathy.

Cathy Shafran: So, what can you tell us about the article that will be reading this week?

Rylee Barnsdale: So, the Writing for Mental wellness campaign that YpsiWrites has been putting on is in partnership with the Washtenaw County Department of Mental Health and their program, The Wish You Knew Campaign, is all about putting a focus on mental health and reducing stigmas around it. So, they're doing a lot of that through community partnerships with other organizations around the Ypsi and Ann Arbor area. Corner Health is one of them. Working with Corner Health, they're trying to lead conversations about mental health. So, it's a little bit easier to talk about the things that you're struggling with, as well as partnering with the Women's Center of Southeastern Michigan, which is a nonprofit in Ann Arbor that focuses on making mental health and behavioral health resources available to women, as well as women and families. The partnership with YpsiWrites is a further extension of that and is sort of a way to bring self-care ideas into that space and helping folks to process things they may be struggling with through the art of writing.

Cathy Shafran: So, you spend some time in the article focusing on the YpsiWrites connection to mental health wellness. Why is it so special? It's something that some people wouldn't think about as they think therapy. They think group discussions. But writing as a form of mental health wellness is not always something that that comes to a person's mind right away. You spent some time focusing on that. Why this area in particular?

Rylee Barnsdale: Writing can be a very personal and intimate activity. You know, whether you're journaling or if you're writing fiction, or anything of that sort, it's a very powerful way to tackle feelings, thoughts, emotions that maybe are difficult to process in, say, that traditional therapy setting. And then, when you use that method in a group setting like YpsiWrites does, you also have the opportunity to hear other folks' stories, share your own if you feel comfortable doing that, and realize that maybe you aren't as alone as you thought you were. You can connect with folks that maybe are facing the same exact struggles that you're facing. And it really is a great opportunity to break down those barriers around talking about mental health because it can be really hard to talk about your struggles.

Cathy Shafran: So, writing is an option that some people hadn't thought about but gives them an outlet they hadn't considered in the past.

Rylee Barnsdale: Right.

Cathy Shafran: Well, I know that, in your reporting, that you did talk extensively with YpsiWrites co-founder Ann Blakeslee, and Ann is here with us now. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ann Blakeslee:Thank you, Cathy, for having me.

Cathy Shafran: I'm just curious how you got connected with writing in terms of mental health in the first place.

Ann Blakeslee: I think we have always...the whole vision and mission of Ypsi writes is to give voice to any writer in the community. It's a multigenerational program. We provide all kinds of writing resources, initiatives, programs and materials, workshops available to any writer free of cost. And so, this was a natural connection and fit for us. We met up with the Washtenaw County Health Department at a resource fair that another organization, nonprofit, in Ypsilanti, was hosting one day and had a conversation with them. And we hit the ground running in terms of developing this program. That was about two years ago.

Cathy Shafran: So, you've been doing this type of work with the health department, focusing on mental health for a couple of years. Share with me some of the surprises that you've seen along the way as you coordinate these two systems.

Ann Blakeslee: I think the biggest surprise has been the uptake, the interest in this. We started out by creating writing prompts that we plan to put out through their social media because they have a nice web presence and social media presence for this program. They're focused on adolescence. But then, we started thinking we could extend that and go beyond it. So, we started developing workshops, and we have gotten tremendous participation. One of our workshops focused on autobiography had over 50 people sign up. And we offer these virtually, so in most cases, we've offered some in-person, but all of them have had a tremendous turnout. So, there's clearly an investment and interest in doing this kind of writing and I think a need in the community. We now have worksheets that we've basically taken to businesses all over Ypsilanti, and every time we take 300 into the community, they vanish immediately. And people have asked us for QR codes because sometimes they feel, again, the stigma around mental health. They don't want to be seen picking one up. So, we're creating posters now to provide those worksheets and materials to people just by a click of their phone as well.

Cathy Shafran: Can you give me an example of how the worksheets and how the workshops work?

Ann Blakeslee: The workshops are really terrific. The program is being led by a licensed clinical social worker, so David Boeving is their name. They have a master's degree in Creative Writing and MSW of University of Michigan. It's really focused on ways to sort of structure and connect topics that you might address in an autobiographical writing to your own sort of experience, lived experiences. Because all of our prompts and all of our workshops really help people to give expression to their emotions and feelings and to really, again, work to destigmatize the mental health issue. [

Cathy Shafran: So, if I came to the workshop, you would give me prompts and I would start writing.

Ann Blakeslee: We give some instruction as well. So, we talk about autobiography. We focus on a lot of genres. So far, we've done work the workshop on autobiography, one on meditation and journaling. So, we talk a lot and guide people through a guided meditation and then work with them on journaling and show them how to do journaling in a productive and constructive way to process their feelings and emotions. And then, this month, we've been focusing on poetry as our genre because of National Poetry Month, and we have plans to do a number of other workshops as well.

Cathy Shafran: Is there a sharing after the work is done?

Ann Blakeslee: Oftentimes, yes. Well, either if it's virtual, go into breakout rooms or break into small groups, people can share if they wish to share. If they don't wish to share, we respect that. It is incredible and amazing to me how people open up. These are very safe spaces, and so, people feel, I think, very comfortable sharing what they've written. And honestly, in some of these workshops, the sharing has been just....the writing is incredible.

Cathy Shafran: If you were to guess, is the healing taking place during the writing or during the sharing? A combination of both?

Ann Blakeslee: A combination, definitely, because as Rylee mentioned, it also, I think, helps people realize they're not alone in their experiences and some of their feelings . We're hoping to work more with teens around just destigmatizing different emotions they might feel and helping them write. And writing, in turn, helps you articulate. Sometimes, it's more difficult to give verbal expression to something before you maybe write about it and process it yourself a little bit.

Cathy Shafran: If somebody's listening to us talking right now, knows somebody who could use help, how do they know where to find the help and perhaps how to direct them to YpsiWrites?

Ann Blakeslee: I think there are so many resources out in the community, and I think the Washtenaw County Health Department is a wonderful one, and going to their website will lead them to multiple resources.

Cathy Shafran: Are you able to share any success stories with breakthroughs that you've heard people having as a result of being involved?

Ann Blakeslee: The autobiography workshop in particular. I had several people reach out to me. And I had a number of people write me back and tell me what a transformative workshop that was. In fact, someone recently told me that they sort of gifted that workshop even though it's free. They had alerted someone in another state. And oftentimes, we do have people participate from multiple states, and they had shared the feedback that that was the most impactful and meaningful workshop that they had ever done and that they're now launched on writing their own autobiographies. So, I think that these workshops are having an impact.

Cathy Shafran: Did they share with you what it did for them?

Ann Blakeslee: Just in terms of freeing them to write about and think about things in ways they had never thought about it. So, I think the instruction and the guidance we gave people in terms of maybe how you might structure an autobiography or think about and express and talk about your experiences was really liberating for them. And we do give prompts and materials that they can then take with them and use after the workshop.

Cathy Shafran: Have you ever used writing as a way of self-help?

Ann Blakeslee: All the time. I'm a breast cancer survivor, and I have been going through breast cancer cancer treatment for the past year. And writing, honestly, this has been very personal to me in that respect because it's been transformative for me as well. And it's actually helped me and inform my thinking about this program because I've realized how significant writing can be in self-care and in mental wellness.

Cathy Shafran: What is it about the writing that has helped you?

Ann Blakeslee: Just expressing how I am feeling myself in ways that I might not express it in a conversation with anyone else. And in fact, one of my friends who also teaches writing, a local high school English teacher, gave me a breast cancer journal. That was one of the first gifts I got after my diagnosis. So, clearly, a lot of people, I think, realize the importance and value of writing for all kinds of health challenges, mental health challenges, physical challenges that we might face in our life.

Cathy Shafran: And what is ahead for the program?

Ann Blakeslee: Hopefully a lot. I think we have terrific momentum. This is a program that also really I think connects our campus here at Eastern Michigan University with the community. And we are working on some curricular components that will be integrated into some of the first year experience programs at the university next year. And also, we're focusing in those on sleep, on nutrition, on movement, things that all of us need to be mindful of. And we're hoping to get more into the schools as well. We have a student advisory panel now for the program, and they are absolutely terrific. We have a number of students from the EMU Social Work program, as well as our clinical psychology program on campus who are now informing us and who also came to us because they have a passion for writing.

Cathy Shafran: So, you don't have to be a great writer.

Ann Blakeslee: No, you don't have to be a great writer. It's for everyone. And everyone can write. That's our belief as well.

Cathy Shafran: You're only writing for yourself.

Ann Blakeslee: Correct.

Cathy Shafran: As a way of healing.

Ann Blakeslee: Correct.

Rylee Barnsdale: And who knows? You might end up being published.

Cathy Shafran: Thank you so much. Ann Blakeslee, co-founder of YpsiWrites and Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale. I want to thank you both so much for joining us today on On The Ground Ypsi. I'm Cathy Shafran, and this is 89.1 WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University. And online at WEMU.org.

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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