Storytelling: illness narratives in mental health

Telling stories is an intrinsic aspect of being human, helping to shape the culture and values of the society we live in (Hyden, 1997).  It is, according to the Society for Storytellingthe very first way of communicating life experiences.”

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Brown et al suggest personal narratives help us to construct and re-examine our identities within our cultural and social context.  They are, according to Schneider, “artful constructions that draw on both our life experiences and on culturally available discourses to cast our lives and ourselves in particular ways.” 

As a nurse, I’m particularly interested in illness narratives; those stories we tell when we experience disease, trauma or periods of ill health.  Whether a bout of the flu or a life-changing diagnosis, we often like to share it with others, which can be part of the recovery process.  Roe & Davidson suggest narratives can help individuals to make sense of their experience and to restore their sense of self and agency at a time when power and control over one’s life may be compromised.

This opportunity to construct a narrative account of illness experience not only allows the individual to regain ownership of their stories, but may also become a fundamental aspect of the healing process.  Greenhalgh and Hurwitz highlight the importance of narrative in the clinical encounter: “Narratives of illness provide a framework for approaching a patient’s problems holistically, and may uncover diagnostic and therapeutic options.”

recovery in serious mental illness is distinctly different from the traditional idea of a clinical recovery from disease

The rise in interest in illness narratives has developed in parallel with the growth of the recovery approach in mental health, both having an emphasis on collaboration, hope and empowerment.  It is worth pointing out that recovery in serious mental illness is distinctly different from the traditional idea of a clinical recovery from disease. Rethink define recovery as, an ongoing process.  It is normal to have difficulties or setbacks along the way.

The therapeutic value of illness narratives may explain the explosion in the number of personal blogs, especially in mental health.  From perinatal mental health to depression, individuals now have a platform for telling their stories, which previously didn’t exist.

with support and encouragement, narrative offers individuals with schizophrenia the opportunity to weave back together a sense of self

Roe & Davidson argue that whilst having the opportunity to ‘re-author’ one’s life story should be considered a key aspect of recovery, it may not be so straightforward. They point out that individuals who have been through the more distressing aspects of schizophrenia, may have difficulty in constructing a coherent narrative.  Some argue that this lack of coherence may actually serve as a protective factor against the despair brought about by the illness. 

However, with support and encouragement, narrative offers individuals with schizophrenia the opportunity to weave back together a sense of self. With an illness that can cause tremendous distress and potentially deprive someone of their liberty, Roe & Davidson argue that narratives offer an opportunity for the person to become “the protagonist, the hero of her own story” 

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in this brilliant TEDTalk by Eleanor Longden.  In my next blog post, I’ll be discussing Eleanor’s narrative in more detail, celebrating an alternative aspect of storytelling.

©Jo Higman

 

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