Writing to Heal

Writing to Heal

Whether it’s breaking the stigma of mental illness or overcoming childhood hardships, a UCF professor and her students are helping others heal through creative writing.

By Paige Wilson

If you could write a letter to your younger self, what would you say?

Ryan Skaryd ’15 used this writing prompt to change his students’ view of mental illness. Through a UCF Literary Arts Partnership with Wraparound Orange, an Orange County agency that supports families with youths with mental health issues, the 23-year-old creative writing graduate student spent 12 weeks this summer teaching students ages 18 to 25 the craft of storytelling.


“Mental illness is a chronic illness that doesn’t end … There is no cure for mental illness, but there is treatment. And we can’t wait until it’s too late to start treating.”

Terry Ann Thaxton ’93 ’95MA

That age is a crucial time to help students deal with major life transitions, which can trigger mental illness, says Terry Ann Thaxton ’93 ’95MA, a creative writing professor who has been organizing similar literary partnerships since 2003.

“Mental illness is a chronic illness that doesn’t end,” Thaxton says. “There is no cure for mental illness, but there is treatment. And we can’t wait until it’s too late to start treating.”

The topic is personal for Thaxton. She was raised with a brother who is intellectually disabled and has a 36-year-old son who lives with Asperger’s syndrome, major depressive disorder and severe anxiety.

Thaxton knew Skaryd was well-equipped to teach these summer classes because of his professionalism and his willingness to discuss his own struggles, including being a caregiver for a family member.

Skaryd’s secret for reaching students is simple: honesty.

“A lot of my reading examples are people  who are brutally honest about their mental  health journey, whether that’s with obsessive compulsive disorder or [something] as simple  as anxiety [about school],” Skaryd says.

One of his students initially wanted to write about a family member, but by the end of the summer session, she turned in a diary-style piece exploring her own mental health instead.

“She tracked down her thoughts about depression and self-image in a really relative tone,” Skaryd says.

“[These students] can write freely and fearlessly without being judged about anything that they go through,” he continues. “Because at the end of the day, other people are going through the same thing, if not very similar.”


“Once I say what I’ve written about and what I’ve experienced, it really changes the dynamic, and the students will share more in their writing … They’ll read more out loud [and] they’ll be more honest.”

Kristi DiLallo ’13

Thaxton’s influence extends to former facilitator Kristi DiLallo ’13 as well, who is using creative writing to help young women in Rikers Island prison. Through a program with the Center for Justice at Columbia University, where she recently earned an MFA, DiLallo is teaching inmates to have open conversations about perseverance.

DiLallo is no stranger to the prison system.  At the age of 6, she stepped into a jail to visit her incarcerated parents. (Her mother remains in prison.) This used to be a source of shame for her, but now she’s using her story to help others tell theirs.

Her students tend to underestimate DiLallo at first — suggesting that she’s privileged and unable to relate. But she’s found that transparency is key in getting through to them.

“Once I say what I’ve written about and what I’ve experienced, it really changes the dynamic, and the students will share more in their writing,” DiLallo says. “They’ll read more out loud [and] they’ll be more honest.”

As a teenager, DiLallo used her own life as inspiration for fiction, but never shared her writing until her first teaching position through UCF’s Literary Arts Partnership program.

During her junior year, she partnered with Orange County Academy in Bithlo, Florida. More than half the class had at least one incarcerated parent, but the students didn’t know DiLallo’s story. After a helpful nudge from Thaxton, DiLallo gained the courage to read her story to the students, who responded with tears and hugs.

“It was such an amazing moment for me when I realized that teaching is so important, and telling my story is important, and so is getting these kids to tell theirs,” says DiLallo. “And if this is how I have to do it then I’ll totally go in on the first day and tell people that this is my story, and that it’s time for you to write yours.”

Illustration by Kirk Wallace