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VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System

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Behavioral Health Vets Discover Love of Writing

Two University of Pittsburgh English professors and VA Pittsburg recreation therapist discuss lesson plans.

University of Pittsburgh professors Lauren Russell, left, and Peter Trachtenberg review lesson plans for a recent Writers Workshop with Michelle Mosser, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System recreation therapist.

By Keith Gottschalk
Thursday, May 31, 2018

Seated around a table with open books, seven people contemplated imagery from Justin Torres's 2011 novel "We the Animals."

"The entire paragraph has only three periods," one person said. "There are so many images packed into one sentence that it's hard to get a complete sense of the setting."

"Reading it, I wonder if it was originally written in English," said another.

The roundtable discussion sounded like a college English class, but it actually took place at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System's fourth floor Behavioral Health lunchroom. The hour-long class is part of the Writers Workshop program, which brings literature and creative writing to Veterans.

"Alright, now think of a place you want to write about," prompted the class' professor, Lauren Russell.

"Then make a list of the sensory details or images of this place," said Russell, who is assistant director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh. "Then combine those lists into a one sentence expression."

The Veterans took a few minutes and, with Russell's encouragement, read their sentences aloud.

"The way you described the beach, I could smell the ocean," said one.

"I can see in my head the woman with the flowing hair you described," said another.

The one-hour classes are led by Russell, Professor Peter Trachtenberg and graduate students from Pitt's English department. VA Pittsburgh implemented the program at its University Drive campus in 2016 at Trachtenberg's suggestion.

"We really wanted to see the value in reaching out to psychiatric patients and how they could benefit from workshops in creative writing," said Trachtenberg. "It also was a means for having my students learn to teach writing to non-traditional students."

Recreation therapist Michelle Mosser oversees the program for VA Pittsburgh. She says she's proud of the Veterans who attend and find, contrary to their own objections, that they can write.

"The big plus for their treatment is that so much of what they are in (the inpatient behavioral health unit) for comes out in the writing," said Mosser. "It makes it easier then, for them to broach those same subjects with their therapists."

No two sessions are the same, Mosser said. Any Veteran who wants to attend from the floor is welcome.

Mosser said many Veterans continue writing on their own outside of the workshop, and they share their work with their therapists. As a result, therapists gain deeper insight into each Veteran's condition.

"It is so exhilarating to see them write," said Trachtenberg. "It's unlocking something inside of them that's powerful and deep."

Around 60 to 70 percent of the Veterans on the floor are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The rest are in addiction treatment or have conditions that overlap with a PTSD diagnosis, said Mosser.

Frequent patient turnover means workshop organizers rarely see the same Veteran more than once. But even if it's only once and the Veteran is pleased with what he or she wrote, then the instructors succeeded.

"When I teach a college writing course, I have to teach from A to B," said Russell. "But the focus here is on getting people to write and that's what I enjoy. Whatever happens in the class, whatever direction the Veterans' writing takes them, then that is what is supposed to happen."

For more about behavioral health treatment at VA Pittsburgh, call 412-360-6788.

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