Storytelling: the schizophrenia illness narrative.

In my previous post I introduced the value of illness narratives.  Here I’ll be using Eleanor Longden’s TEDTalk to demonstrate the power of narrative in schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia can be a devastating illness with catastrophic consequences.  Whilst there have been few advances in medical treatments, the growth of the recovery model is now helping people to manage their symptoms and build a meaningful life.

It was once thought that people who have been through the more distressing aspects of the illness may be unable to form a coherent account of their experiences.  That notion is now being widely rejected.  Indeed, it’s becoming apparent that in trying to make sense of the fallout from schizophrenia, constructing a narrative can actually form part of the recovery process (Roe & Davidson).  In her TEDTalk, Eleanor presents her story with eloquence, taking the listener on an engaging journey.


In his work around stigma, Goffman referred to the concept of a ‘spoiled identity.’ Given the stigma surrounding schizophrenia one could argue that the diagnosis has the potential to create a spoiled identity.

Hyden however argues that illness narratives provide an opportunity for individuals to counteract this.  As Benwell & Stokoe suggest, “the practice of narration involves the ‘doing’ of identity.”

Eleanor constructs an identity that will be reasonably familiar to her audience. She is a graduate, and a highly successful one at that, with the “highest degree in psychology” and the “highest masters” the university has ever awarded. Her delivery is articulate, with moments of self-deprecating humour.  At one point she describes herself as a ‘madwoman’ and jokes that arming herself with picnic ware was ‘strategic.’

This has the potential to achieve several outcomes. First of all, her academic accomplishments suggest she is the intellectual equal of her audience. Secondly, by poking fun at herself, she is minimising the opportunity for anyone else to do so. She recognises the bizarre nature of her symptoms, occasionally with humour, effectively robbing her audience of the capacity to pass judgment.

the chaos of her illness is firmly in the past

The distressing aspects of Eleanor’s illness are clearly presented in the past tense, in the context of periods of acute illness: “It was then that I…” and “It was at this point…” There is a definite switch to the present tense, when Eleanor signals that the chaos of her illness is firmly in the past: “I’m now very proud to be a part of Intervoice.” This fits neatly into Toolan’s suggestion that “our preference is often for the sequence of connected events to take shape around a state or period of turbulence or crisis, subsequently resolved.”

society continues to marginalise and stigmatise those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia

Schneider argues, “If we do not present ourselves in terms of reasonably familiar histories and identities, we are likely to be regarded as, at best, eccentric and, at worst, mentally ill.” Eleanor would appear to have skilfully avoided the latter by presenting herself as an eloquent, engaging professional, working with a global organisation to bring about social change. This sits very comfortably with the TED ethos which claims to promote “the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.”

Interestingly, she does appear to invoke rather a socialist identity throughout her story. She refers to fellow voice hearers, as ‘comrades’ and quotes Hugo Chavez, former Venezuelan president and socialist. She refers to solidarity and oppression, words which are associated with the socialist movement, battling the hegemony of the ruling elite.  

The ruling elite in this case may be psychiatry itself, or a society which continues to marginalise and stigmatise those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. As Schneider argues, if individuals wish to contest the pejorative nature of this diagnosis, they can either contest their membership to this category, or they can contest the definition of it.  Eleanor does not contest her identity as someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia; rather, through her narrative she challenges us to reconsider our preconceptions about the illness.

©Jo Higman

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