Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the famous Nigerian author explains that 'Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity (TED Talk).' It is true that the stories that we tell or are told about us shape us as human beings. Often these stories develop from childhood and stay with us into adulthood, and can determine our happiness and well-being.
Mental Health is an area that is highly stigmatised and regularly the stories related to mental health are stories that 'dispossess and malign'. Nearly nine out of ten people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives' (Mental Health Foundation). Similarly, the stories told about young people are often negative: 'Figures show more than half of the stories about teenage boys in national and regional newspapers in the past year (4,374 out of 8,629) were about crime. The word most commonly used to describe them was "yobs" (591 times), followed by "thugs" (254 times), "sick" (119 times) and "feral" (96 times)'(The Independent, 2009).
Therefore being young and suffering from a mental health problem means that you are at great risk of having your story misrepresented and currently there are a large number of young people who fall into this misrepresented group: '1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 - 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder - that is around three children in every class' (Young Minds).
It is within this context, that The Story Project, is working with young people who are suffering from or are at risk of mental health problems, to help them gain the literacy skills and emotional understanding needed to relate to others and tell their own 'empowering and humanising' stories. This is done through reading powerful stories by authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, analysing and empathising with the characters and then using the experience and specific therapeutic writing techniques to inspire young people to write their own stories and accounts of their personal experiences.
Reading and writing in this way can have a number of positive effects on young people's well being. In fact reading has been considered a viable treatment for some mental health disorders and is now offered on prescription by the NHS. The Reading Agency has recently launched 'Reading Well for Young People', a list of fiction and non-fiction books for GPs to prescribe young people with a variety of mental health disorders. This is why in Ancient Greece libraries often had an inscription above the door stating that within the building was ‘medicine for the soul’ (Brown, 1975). The Story Project is guided by the 'Reading Well for Young People' list and the comprehensive database compiled by the Bibliotherapy in Education Project at Central Michigan University to ensure the stories chosen for our workshops provide the right emotional support for the young people we are working with.
Writing as a source of emotional support is also a well understood concept as many people are aware of the positive effects of writing a diary or letters. James Pennebaker, who has carried out extensive research into the connection between writing and well-being, asked college students to write on four consecutive days, for 15 minutes each time. One group were asked to write about the most traumatic experience of their lives, ideally one that was a secret, while the other wrote about superficial things, such as the shoes they were wearing. Tracking their visits to the student health centre in the months before and after writing, he found that the group who wrote about a traumatic experience went only half as much as those who wrote about superficial things.
Through providing young people with a programme that combines the use of reading and writing stories, The Story Project is aiming to improve young people's well-being whilst also improving their literacy skills. Literacy skills are developed through linking reading and writing tasks to the national curriculum and through support from a qualified English teacher. The Story Project also provides training for educators who wish to learn more about how they can use stories to support their students emotional and academic success.
Therefore, as an organisation that promotes the power of stories, it is only right that we also share our stories and stories from our field that matter. This blog will be our place to do that, so expect to find stories we have written, reflections on fiction or non-fiction stories that have inspired us, reflections on programmes that are working in a similar field and updates on research from our field.
We hope you will enjoy it, and we encourage you to read on to find out more.
Brown, E. F. (1975). Bibliotherapy and its widening application. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press.
Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval. Oakland, California: New Harbinger, 2004.