Yesterday I returned from a stimulating conference in Noosa, Queensland, Australia. The main themes of the inaugural interdisciplinary conference were the value of narrative in 1)promoting wellness, healing and resilience, and 2) teaching health professionals to gain more empathy and understand more about the illness experience from a patient’s perspective.

The majority of the participants were nurses or students doing a PhD in creative writing. It was inspiring to come to a conference which encouraged presenters to share their creative pieces, rather than focusing on hiding behind academic papers and jargon.

When people have the courage to write or speak from the heart, it makes them more vulnerable. However it also creates a stronger connection with the audience.

I had the privilege of listening to a whole range of people’s stories. Many of them were filled with grief and loss. The mother whose young child died; the woman whose sister died from AIDS after ceasing her medication; the girl who was raped at the age of thirteen, and became depressed afterwards. No-one – not even her parents, teachers or psychiatrist – asked her if anything had happened to change her from a happy teenager to a depressed, suicidal one. How tragic. She left home and lived on the street, addicted to drugs and being sexually abused.

However her story eventually became one of transformation and redemption. She ended up getting her act together after some time and completed a university degree. She also stopped smoking and drinking. Whilst being beneficial to her physical health, this action opened the doors to the painful emotions she had suppressed inside her for so long. She was on the verge of needing to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital when her mother decided to look after her at home. The patient healed herself by creating a film that depicted her experience of depression and anxiety.

She showed us the film. A film with recurrent scenes of broken pieces of a white china cup that she kept trying to make whole again; the fragmented, confusing pictures of people and sounds; the despairing voice of her sister, begging her not to commit suicide. It was deeply moving, and touched us all. She is well now, and is involved in teaching nursing students and others about the experience of a mental illness.

If all this sounds depressing to you, it wasn’t. Why not? Because all of the stories demonstrated resilience, hope and the potential of storytelling to heal people.

Sociology Professor Arthur W. Frank, pioneer of narrative therapy and author of the landmark book ‘The Wounded Storyteller’, describes three types of illness narratives: the restitution narrative, the chaos narrative and the quest narrative. You can read more about them here if interested: http://www.aissg.org/articles/TELLING.HTM

There is actually nothing new about the idea that storytelling has the potential for healing in some people. Indigenous Australians and some other Indigenous cultures around the world have known this for thousands of years.

It was therefore encouraging to hear about some good work being done in the nursing faculties of some universities, but there is still much work to be done in this area.

It’s time more mainstream health professionals came on board.

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