Mental health and story telling
I’ve been asked to write about my inspiration for doing a PhD linked to mental health. Once upon a time, my friend Sujana, a very wise lady from Nepal, gave me a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves. In it, the author Clarissa Estés examines folk tales from a healing perspective. That is, we have the power to heal ourselves if we listen to the stories within and around us. Reading the stories I was reminded of the two battered and dusty fairy tale books I own: presents my mum gave me as a child. The emotions they raised; the joy, the fear, the happiness and anxiety, probably influenced me more than any other literature in my life. They taught me about compassion, and that one should never give up. What could this possibly have to do with a PhD?
Does it surprise you to learn that some of the most well known thinkers, writers and philosophers in history, such as Plato, Albert Einstein, Freud, and C.S. Lewis, know about the power of tales? Freud wrote that, “the storyteller has a peculiarly directive power over us; by means of the moods he can put us into, he is able to guide the current of our emotions”.
Woman Who Run with the Wolves reminded me of the emotional impact stories could have. Another inspiration was The Treehouse, by Naomi Wolf. A woman’s story of her father, their relationship, and the lessons he taught about keeping happiness in one’s life through creativity and playfulness. I was also drawn to storytelling—pressing passed old furs, on the inside of a forgotten wardrobe—to The Waverley Bar, Edinburgh, where once a month people meet to share stories; new, old, real, and fantastical. Once I’d linked storytelling and health it made me realise that I was weaving the threads of these things into my life. Although I was extremely lucky to be happy with where I was living, and my social life, I was miserable working in an office.
So I wrote a PhD proposal about storytelling and mental health. At first I had a vague idea that stories could be used to heal but not if it was a feasible project. And how could I use this idea to help people? Who would I help? What work had already been done on the subject? Soon, I realised that nothing conclusive had been done. There is work on writing therapy and professionals, such as psychologists, using story in one to one sessions but nothing specifically on traditional storytelling.
I then had the opportunity to go to Beyond the Boarders, storytelling festival, where I talked to Dr Killick who has done some work on emotional intelligence with Neil Frude. Basically this looks at how stories teach us how to respond appropriately to situations in our life according to the society we live in. When we listen to a story it can allow room for reflection, by the brain consciously and unconsciously linking it to previous experiences.
Our earliest influencers are our parents, grandparents or families—in whatever form they take. The stories our loved ones share, the values and knowledge pass on to us are important because we form narratives of our lives based on the stories around us and therefore our self-identity. If this is damaged it affects our ability to deal with the challenges life throws at us. So I think it is important to research this area and encourage storytelling in schools and communities. Expanding technologies may allow us new and fresh ways to bring ideas to life but there is something pleasurable about one person sharing a story with others face to face.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman. London: Rider, 1992.
Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XVII (1917 – 1919). London: Vintage, 2001: 251.
Frude, Neil and Killick, Steve. Family Storytelling and the Attachment Relationship. Psychodynamic Practice 17.4 (2011): 441-445.
Pratt, Michael., Joan Norris, Shannon Hebblethwaite, and Mary Arnold “Intergenerational Transmission of Values: Family Generativity and Adolescents’ Narratives of Parent and Grandparent Value Teaching.” Journal of Personality 76.2 (2008): 171-98.
Rantala, Kati. “Narrative Identity and Artistic Narration: The Story of Adolescents’ Art.” Journal of Material Culture. 2.2 (1997): 219-239. Sage Journals. 2012. Sage Publications: 221.
Wolf, Naomi. The Tree House. London: Virago, 1997.