April 2016Research at the Lady Davis Institute

New attempt to understand the positive impact of expressive writing

A Montreal author and researcher who has gained a deep appreciation for the importance of self-expression among young people is now undertaking a more in-depth study to determine how and why such a positive impact is made through expressive writing.

Maria Guzzo, known for her philanthrophic contributions, will be taking her research into Montreal-area schools to make personal contact with adolescents, as she works toward a Master’s degree in psychiatry at McGill University. In the process, she will conduct some of her studies in the Lady Davis Institute (LDI) at the JGH under the supervision of Dr. Danielle Groleau, a Senior Investigator.

“We know that adolescents find the experience of writing about their emotions cathartic,” says Ms. Guzzo. “Expressing themselves among their peers helps more with social integration than just opening up privately with an adult therapist.

“It gives all of the kids an opportunity to see that everyone is coping with one problem or another, and this creates more understanding and less alienation. In discussing issues among themselves, they become a support system for one another.”

Ms. Guzzo’s interest in the impact of expressive writing on adolescents’ self-esteem and confidence was sparked by the publication of her own children’s book, How to Train Your Dreams. The Montreal-set story tells of a boy who escapes his problems by dreaming about the things that make him happiest.

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In the course of writing, Ms. Guzzo became involved with the Kids Write Network, a non-profit organization that has developed a novel mental health program in which children express themselves through literary exercises.

This led to visits to several schools where her book has been used as a catalyst for discussion. Ms. Guzzo recalls one particularly emotional encounter with a teen who was coping with severe eczema. “I was forewarned that this kid wouldn’t speak up, because he’s so self-conscious. So when he did, it represented a real breakthrough.

“On his own initiative, he told his friends how much bullying was affecting him. It wasn’t that the others were trying to be cruel; they were just completely unaware how they were making him feel. So his speaking out served as a catalyst for others to gain insight into their own behaviour and how they affected someone else.”

Ms. Guzzo’s current research will be conducted at an inner-city school in Montreal, involving roughly 200 seventh-graders who face a variety of social and economic problems. By the end of the program, the young participants will complete their own stories and have their books published by the Kids Write Network.

“Coming home at the end of the project with an actual book that they have created, we think, will enhance their sense of accomplishment,” she points out. “Not many teenagers are able to say they are published authors.”

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