Skip to main content

Adult mental healthMental health and societyMental health nursing

The Story of the Storytelling Conference – Jodie Gornall

19 September 2019

The International Storytelling for Health Conference at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.

Once upon a time, there was a conference, unlike any other conference that had been before. The business suits and ties were transformed into floral prints, casual dress and funky outfits. When night was nigh, I walked in to hear a metaphorical story of princesses, soldiers and devilish monsters. Accompanied by a violin and cello, this performance is presented to an audience with athletic imaginations.

A Norwegian woman is introduced. A bright yellow chiffon dress appears, with a clash-tastic pink shawl. She combines physical performance with Nordic mythology, intertwined with the heart-breaking story of her son, a fellow storyteller, getting mouth cancer.

Hosted by Arts for Health, this is the second Storytelling Conference for Health to be held. The conference runs with a morning introduction session, a tea break, followed by several parallel sessions across different nearby sites, each with a theme. Attendees are encouraged to go where they will be inspired most and where they will want to share their story. There is an atmosphere of creativity, welcomed critique and compliments. Requests to share and delve deeper into someone’s story are the ultimate gestures of flattery, breaking the British barriers of personal space.

You may be imagining a room full of archetypal hippies, Professor Trelawneys and poets in hand-me-downs, with a vegan buffet at lunch time. There was a vegan buffet – it was delicious.

PowerPoints are barely acknowledged as stories are told from the mind and mouth. There is a myriad of thoughts, words and sounds. The stories are sculpting the minds of the healthcare professionals, service users, patients of past-times, relatives and industry workers who are attending. It is a world away from the computers and case notes we are used to. The performances take time and are purposefully indulgent. The social class does appear constant, with the few specks of diversity speaking on behalf of their unrepresented community. I hope not to hear too many stories from an already outspoken group. I learn of digital stories, patient experiences and powerful recitals, evoking something beyond an endeavour to employ teamwork and leadership skills.

Storytelling is described throughout the conference as an innate ability. Related to anecdotes and ghost stories, the familiar warmth of the event strikes me the most. Ever told a story to a group of friends and had an appreciative response? It is a conference of that amplified.

Some may think, well, what’s the point? Just go down the pub and discuss the week’s shenanigans. But in healthcare, telling a story of a previous patient to comfort someone who has just been diagnosed, can be the difference between alienation and peace of mind. It is the influence of the lived experience, with no reference made to statistics. The culture of the conference is to allow someone to take control of the narrative, especially for patients. Storytelling is praised as an ameliorative mechanism.

My first session covers “Writing for Wellbeing”. Speakers talk of the mindful effects of writing and how they can feel isolated without it; their motto being write, rest, restore. I can relate to that feeling, knowing the delightful relief of manically typing when I have an urge to write. There is very little fear of humiliation or shame, with all speakers repeatedly describing the conference as a safe space. Chairs talk of the courage needed to write as we claim our validity through telling the story. There is a willingness for self-responsibility.

One speaker sums up storytelling in an insightful way. She sees it as an equaliser. Whether there is direct involvement, sympathy or just an interest, everyone loves to listen to a story.

Anne-Marie  et al. present BORDERLINE

Three women stand in a line. The first steps forward and tells us, “This performance is dedicated to Kirsty.”

Anne-Marie: a mental health nurse for 30-odd years turned lecturer, emotionally bombards you with her performance, recounting childhood to present day.

She begins with a punch in the gut, highlighting the woes of the NHS amidst our Brexit crisis, and scouts you with a plea bordering that of a beggar. With the industry growing, Anne-Marie foresees the mass anxiety that will cloak the world when the demand overwhelms the supply of mental health staff. Brief glimmers of smiles and laughter from her childhood story draw you in, sucking on the lollipop she’s gifting you, until she snatches it away, saying we’ve not yet done enough to deserve such sweetness. Exposing her own family affiliations and influences, she bares herself and her passion, illustrating the generational developments within mental health. Her devotion for her work is evident.

She questions safeguarding and support for the healthcare professionals themselves, the burnout we have all become accustomed to on the news. Nurses are the ones who make you feel comfortable, who don’t step out of line and are trusted. Beneath Anne-Marie’s words is a sense of desperation and frustration. She is someone who has been silenced by the reputation of her job and seems exasperated. She is an unusual witness and her views are refreshing to hear.

Nicky: an extraordinary woman with nothing but great intentions, and clearly no stranger to the stage. She is telling Kirsty’s story, a service user.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is an inescapable chaos. Consuming and controlling, it affects more women than men, and to be diagnosed you must tick five of nine boxes. But what is it?

With rapidly increasing diagnoses of BPD, it is clear from Kirsty’s account it is being stigmatised at an equally fast rate. Her stories prove the extent of just how much BPD has become a label. Doctors have refused to treat her, and she has been prescribed the same medication that she overdosed on. Kirsty is, understandably, at the brink of her trust in the system. She wants the realities to be known and to be treated as a stand-alone patient. She wants mental health to become as routine as blood pressure and heart rate, and I can’t see why it shouldn’t. Nicky, whether down to her acting ability or her own personal experience of mental health problems, is conveying the helplessness felt by many service users who want to feel understood and not judged.

Sylwia: a newly qualified nurse who will make the profession proud.

Originally from Poland, Sylwia gives us hope. Enthusiastically recounting the “colourful” people she was drawn to back in her hometown, she laughs about the influences of religion and being called “crazy” on them. It’s refreshingly palatable.

And then, abruptly, she reminds us why we’re there. Her friend, pushed to the edge by ridicule, died by suicide with no apparent forewarning.

She relates the struggle of mental health to the language barrier she experienced when she moved to Wales. Sylwia wants us to unite in our shared difficulties and daily challenges, where some may need more support to manage than others. She does not segregate her patients from the general public, understanding the ease of slipping into a mental health emergency.

During Sylwia’s nursing training, Kirsty came into a lecture and told her story. For Sylwia, this was a pivotal moment. She became emotional and felt a dynamic change amongst the cohort. Others began to share their stories, and the importance of holistic care and non-judgemental consideration were emphasised. Sylwia has embarked upon her nursing career with change in mind, a desire to smash borders. I have no doubt she will succeed.

Together, they show a collaborative approach to mental health services; a group of friends who share a passion to make others aware of this pressing issue by telling their untold stories. It is their successive call for your bare-below-the-elbow arms that compels, knowing each perspective is just as important as the last.

Kirsty intended to perform her story herself at the conference, however unfortunately, her mental health has deteriorated. This is a poignant point that screams louder than any of the stories told on stage. We wish her all the best and hope for a safe recovery.