Challenges. Hopes. Reflections about life. Penning your thoughts and emotions in a personal diary can help boost mental health, as it did for some patients at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn about the mental health rewards of journaling, and get tips on how to start a journal.
The COVID-19 crisis caused disruption to daily life, increased isolation and a climate of heightened fear and uncertainty that was challenging for most of us. However the impact was greater on people with mental health issues who had to manage their existing conditions on top of pandemic-related stresses.
For many patients who were admitted to IMH in the early stages of the pandemic, they found themselves returning to an exceptionally uncertain and disrupted environment upon discharge and faced tremendous challenges coping with the new normal. The need to support these patients was the catalyst for Journey with Journaling, a ground-up project started by Matchsticks, a volunteer group with IMH.
Matchsticks volunteers holding up journaling kits from the Journey with Journaling project
The project aims to improve patients’ mental wellness using powerful life tools: pen and paper. With funding from the oscar@sg fund by Temasek Trust, Matchsticks volunteers researched and designed journaling kits that were handpacked by the volunteers themselves and contained handwritten notes for a personal touch. About 750 journaling kits were distributed to patients at IMH’s acute wards in 2020.
Benefits of journaling
Research shows that regular journaling can help individuals increase self-awareness, organise thoughts better, and focus on positive experiences. By externalising our feelings onto paper, we can gain new perspectives, learn gratitude, develop coping strategies, and gain a greater sense of control over our life narrative. These outcomes have been linked to more positive mental health outcomes, such as:
- Fewer symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression1
- Improved physical functioning and wellbeing2
- Increased self-awareness and greater understanding about one’s triggers3
- Improved mood by reducing intrusive and negative thoughts4
- Lower work absenteeism5
- Improved working memory6
Patients at IMH who received a journaling kit and wrote regularly in their journals reported lower stress levels and better mental wellbeing. The project also increased patient interactions as some sought to share their journal entries with others. One nurse recounted how a group of patients had even gathered and decorated their journals together. Encouraged by positive feedback from both patients and staff, Matchsticks hopes to introduce the joys and benfits of journaling to long-term residents at IMH.
According to Anne-Laure Le Cunff, founder of content learning community Ness Labs, there are many different journaling tools including online blogging sites and apps, but a simple paper notebook works just as fine7. Using a physical diary can even further improve one’s self-reflection and reduce stress by reducing time spent in front of a screen.
One does not need a lot of time to journal. According to Jonathan Kuek, founder of Matchsticks, all it takes is a few minutes a day to build the daily habit of journaling.
Not sure what to start writing about? Jonathan suggests drawing or doodling, or pasting stickers or photographs that express your feelings. Each Journey with Journaling kit contained colour marker pens and stickers for IMH patients to track their emotional health in a fun and creative way.
For more tips on journaling, check out the following resources:
- The Tapestry Project SG offers writing workshops where one can learn tips and tricks on journaling – https://thetapestryproject.sg/writing-workshop/
- “60 Journal Prompts” by In Spaces Between – http://inspacesbetween.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/60JournalPrompts.pdf
- “My Bullet Journal Story” by Boho Berry – https://bulletjournal.com/blogs/bulletjournalist/show-tell-3
- “50 Lists to Make When Life Feels Overwhelming” by Sarah Steckler – https://www.mindfulproductivityblog.com/blog/50-lists-to-make-when-life-feels-overwhelming
Visit Temasek Trust (www.temasektrust.org.sg) to find out more about the oscar@sg fund.
Jonathan Kuek is the founder of Matchsticks of IMH (Institute of Mental Health), a volunteer group committed to serving the mental health community in Singapore.
- (N.d.) Journaling for Mental Health. University of Rochester Medical Center. Retrieved from: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=4552
- Smyth, J. M., Johnson, J. A., Auer, B. J., Lehman, E., Talamo, G., and Sciamanna, C. N. (2018, December 10) Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Publications. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6305886/
- Ackerman, C. E. (2021, April 15) 83 Benefits of Journaling for Depression, Anxiety, and Stress. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved from: https://positivepsychology.com/benefits-of-journaling/
- Carpenter, S. (2001, September). A new reason for keeping a diary. American Psychological Association, 32 (8). Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/sep01/keepdiary
- Baikie, K. A., Wilhelm, K. (2018, January, 2) Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/advances-in-psychiatric-treatment/article/emotional-and-physical-health-benefits-of-expressive-writing/ED2976A61F5DE56B46F07A1CE9EA9F9F
- Baikie, K. A., Wilhelm, K. (2005) Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (vol 11), 338–346. Retrieved from: https://namp.americansforthearts.org/sites/default/files/338full.pdf
- Le Cunff, A. (n.d. ) Dear Diary: the science-based benefits of journaling. NessLabs.com. Retrieved from: https://nesslabs.com/dear-diary