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Finding a voice: revisiting the history of therapeutic writing
  1. A D Peterkin1,
  2. A A Prettyman2
  1. 1
    Department of Psychiatry, Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  2. 2
    Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Miss A A Prettyman, Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto, 170 St. George Street, Toronto, ON M5R 2M8, Canada; adrienne.prettyman{at}


We review the history of therapeutic writing, focusing on the role of narrative competence and the use of writing therapy for stress, trauma and coping with chronic illness. After providing a historical overview of the evidence for writing’s positive effects on health and the hypothesised mechanisms underlying this effect, we ask whether narrative competence can explain and improve writing’s benefit. Narrative competence is defined across two dimensions: (1) Emplotment, or the ability to construct and comprehend goal-oriented connections among temporally situated events; and (2) Meaning, or the ability to understand and communicate contextual interpretations of ambiguous story structures. We suggest that the ability to construct well-organised and meaningful narratives is an important skill for successfully coping with life stressors and trauma, enabling individuals to create coherent stories from fractured memories and to facilitate cognitive processing of traumatic events. Given the positive effect of narrative competence on psycho-physical health, there is a need to broaden medical use of narrative competence therapies beyond the current interventions aimed at fostering empathy among healthcare providers, to include therapies for the patients themselves. Toward this end, we briefly explore one clinical model currently offered by Dr Allan Peterkin and colleagues at Mount Sinai Hospital providing group Narrative Competence Psychotherapy (NCP) for individuals living with HIV.

  • narrative medicine
  • therapeutic writing

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • See Editorial, p 67

  • i This is a composite patient vignette. Specific details have been changed to protect the confidentiality of individual patients.

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