Ypsi-based mental health writing workshops encourage healthy coping and community dialogue

The nonprofit YpsiWrites and the Washtenaw County Health Department are working to reduce overall stigma around mental health through a series of Writing for Mental Wellness workshops.
​​This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

For many people the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in new or heightened mental health struggles, many of which are now exacerbated as the world settles into a "new normal" and pandemic-era safety nets disappear. The nonprofit YpsiWrites and the Washtenaw County Health Department are working to foster an outlet for those challenges, encourage community dialogue, and reduce overall stigma around mental health through a series of Writing for Mental Wellness workshops.

The workshop series encourages attendees to use writing as a form of self-care or coping mechanism. The workshops are free and open to all ages.

Ann Blakeslee, co-founder of YpsiWrites and director of Eastern Michigan University’s Office of Campus and Community Writing, says writing is a "reflective practice" that allows people to explore and process difficult emotions and trauma in a healthy, sustainable way. While workshop attendees are not required to share their writing, Blakeslee has noticed that the nonjudgmental workshop environment has led to very open conversations among attendees.

"We’re bringing together people in the community who didn’t have any prior connections or relationships, and the spaces have been so respectful," Blakeslee says. "People are willing to share, and sometimes make themselves very vulnerable in sharing. People are so accepting and supportive of one another."

Previous Writing for Mental Wellness workshops have focused on journaling, poetry, and autobiography, all with a focus on how writing, mental wellness, and self-care interact and overlap. Blakeslee says the reception for these workshops has been "very positive," and that there is a clear desire from the community for the workshops to continue.
A writing workshop facilitated by Ann Blakeslee.
"The fact that an autobiography workshop brings in over 50 participants is amazing," Blakeslee says. "Our hope is to continue to expand and work with different populations in different ways, and to promote conversations across generations to work to destigmatize mental health."

Blakeslee credits workshop facilitators with creating a space where attendees not only feel free to share and be vulnerable, but also want to return for future workshops. One of these facilitators is David Boeving, a clinical social worker and creative writing instructor for Eastern Michigan University. They also coordinate teams for the Writing for Mental Wellness workshop project. They say personal writing can be a "healing" process that encourages open conversations.

"I feel like we’re building a collective toolbox of writing strategies and strategies of wellness, and synthesizing them into one," Boeving says. "It felt like such an important time to start doing this work. We wanted to hop on the opportunity."

The Washtenaw County Health Department has been a key partner to YpsiWrites in developing the workshops and extending their community impact. The health department's Wish You Knew mental health campaign, created in partnership with Washtenaw County Community Mental Health, focuses on fostering supportive conversations between youth and adults about mental health. The campaign began in 2019, but has recently ramped up efforts since COVID-19 restrictions have lessened, making it easier for groups to come together in person to have those conversations.

Health Department public health assistant Easheta Shah, who has been working on the campaign since July 2022, says the campaign’s main goal in 2022 was to address youth mental health needs in Washtenaw County.
YpsiWrites' Pam McCombs, Beth Sabo, and Ann Blakeslee at a writing workshop.
"There was a huge increase in the need for access to mental health services across the county," Shah says. "It can be difficult to access those resources, so we’ve been collaborating with local mental health practitioners to make things like therapy and behavioral health services more accessible."

Some of those partnerships aim to tackle mental health issues head-on through community-led conversations, as well as putting a spotlight on services that some may not realize they have at their disposal. That's what led the health department to its perhaps unlikely collaboration with YpsiWrites.

Both Boeving and Blakeslee agree that the partnership with the health department has been integral to driving interest in the workshops. The Wish You Knew team helps to edit and revise worksheets, as well as disseminate worksheets at community events and local businesses. 

"The health department really saw the value and potential of the workshops," Blakeslee says. "It’s been a great fit and partnership."

Boeving says the workshops foster a sense of community, which radiates into the broader community when people can access worksheets outside the workshops.
YpsiWrites co-founder and EMU Office of Campus and Community Writing Director Ann Blakeslee.
"Dropping off new worksheets every month and hearing people’s excitement about this is very cool," Boeving says. "Wish You Knew has an awesome social media presence. They’ve done a great job translating some of our work to encourage engagement online."

Because mental health services can sometimes be expensive or difficult to find, Boeving is also proud of the fact that the workshops are free.

"We’re able to work toward destigmatizing in a way that some more private forms can’t quite do," they say. "We’re kicking down some barriers."

As many Washtenaw County residents process mental health struggles or trauma, Boeving says efforts like the workshops can make that process feel less intimidating and less lonely. 

"We’re not just returning to where we were before. There’s a lot of communal change," Boeving says. "We’re taking part in a community effort as we talk about this."

To learn more about the Wish You Knew campaign, visit the Washtenaw County Health Department website or follow the campaign on Instagram. To learn more about YpsiWrites’ Writing for Mental Wellness workshops, check the event schedule on YpsiWrites' website

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.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.