People are born with an innate ability to create and share stories with others. Storytelling is everywhere, from talking about everyday experiences and events to describing a fallout with our romantic partners.The discipline of “Narrative Psychology”, which emerged during the 1980s,emphasizes the value of stories and storytelling in giving meaning to a person’s experiences in multiple ways, such as shaping their memory of pastevents, their understanding of events of the here-and-know, and their representationof future events. The basic idea is that humans make sense of their world through narratives that help them developand organize their life story and personal identity.Unsurprisingly, related research shows that these narratives are related to well-being (Adler et al., 2016). This is why narrative interventions have been used widely in mental healthconditions, such as trauma (Schauer et al., 2011) and depression (Seo et al., 2015).
However, unlike narratives that are often private, storytelling has a profound social nature since, in this case, the story is shared with a group of people thatusually provide a supportive environment. Storytelling is, at the same time, an emotionally challenging experience as sharing our personal baggage makes us feel exposed and vulnerable. But it is also a process that paves the way for healing and growth. Mental health issues have the potential to obstruct one’s life story and identity, making them feel stuckto a certain point in their life history.Storytelling allows people to repair this order of events by helping the person make the necessary connections.
There are two main ways storytelling may be used in mental health care: the first one focuses on recovery and the other on trauma care. The main aim of the recovery approach, whichwas inspired by service user activists,is to help the personbuild an identity beyond the limitations of mental health disorders,illness or disability (Anthony, 1993). It aspires not to cure individuals with mental health problems but instead to help them lead meaningful lives regardless of whether they present mental health symptoms.During this recovery journey, it has been suggested that there are four tasks that people have to go through (Slade, 2009). These four tasks cover the topics ofhope, identity, meaning, and personal responsibility, which reflect the significant challenges faced by people with mental illnesses in these areas.
Concerning hope, it is well known that the diagnosis of a mental disorder and its devaluing consequences can deprive the person of hope for a better future. In terms of identity, mental illnesses affect individuals’ personal and social identity, which begins to revolve around their disorder, undermining other aspects of their identity. Furthermore, mental illness is an experience that impacts the person’s meaning-making, asking for an explanation for the disorder (direct meaning) and leading to a reconsideration of values and life goals that they perceive to be meaningful (indirect meaning). Last but not least, responsibility is also an area affected by mental disorders; the disorder itself and the reactions from the person’s environment and society can compromise the feeling of responsibility and control over one’s life (Slade, 2009).
Based on the challenges above, the four main recovery tasks are formed. The first recovery step is to develop a positive identityand a sense of personhood outside of having a mental illness which will instilhope. The second taskis to reframe the mental illness, which means making sense of the illness and its implications for the person. Then, the individual has to develop self-management techniques that will allow them to count less on professional help to deal with challenges. The last task for recovery is for people to createsocial roles through relationships with family and friends and engage in social activities that matter to them. During this personal recovery process, the mental health professionals’ role is to support the individual in their recovery journey.Storytelling is at the very heart of this journey since it helps normalize the mental health problems that the person is facing by sharing their experiences with others and instilling hope and inspiration in them to deal with similar challenges.
Adler, J. M., Lodi-Smith, J., Philippe, F. L., &Houle, I. (2016)The incremental validity of narrative identity in predicting well-being: A review of the field and recommendations for the future. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 20(2):142-175. doi:10.1177/1088868315585068
Leamy, M., Bird, V., Le Boutillier, C., Williams, J., & Slade, M. (2011). Conceptual framework for personal recovery in mental health: systematic review and narrative synthesis. British Journal of Psychiatry, 199(6), 445-52. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.110.083733
McPin Foundation. (2020). My story: Our future – storytelling resource pack for practitioners working in mental healthcare. London: McPin Foundation.
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Seo, M., Kang, H.S., Lee, Y.J., & Chae, S.M. (2015). Narrative therapy with an emotional approach for people with depression: Improved symptom and cognitive‐emotional outcomes. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 22 (6), 379-389.doi: 10.1111/jpm.12200
Slade, M. (2009). Personal recovery and mental illness: A guide for mental health professionals. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
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