Tell Me A Story: Introduction
Telling one’s story is complicated. Often, the stigma and uninformed or deeply ignorant opinions someone with mental health conditions display precisely why storying is crucial. To give an account of one’s first-hand experience with various aspects of our day to day lives gives a new life to issues that, against all dominant discourses of mental health, affirm many different ways of knowing mental health – and in the process, oneself. As a researcher of mental health narratives in media and popular culture, and an individual who experiences depression, psychosis, and PTSD, the value of telling your own story (to me) is crucial to expanding public awareness and combatting stigma.
The Complexity of Narrative
Narratives, it seems, work both ways. On one hand, news stories depict instances of living well with mental conditions, aiming to break down stigmatizing images and stories in popular belief. Yet, newspapers run headlines reading “1,200 killed by mental patients”, perpetuate the unfounded connection between mental health and mass shootings or other horrible tragedies, and make fearful individuals with mental health conditions. Politicians like United States President Donald Trump or Ontario Premier Doug Ford, in positions to begin affirmative and constructive dialogues around the shortcomings of mental health service and stigma, reify this fear by appealing to the language of “mentally ill monsters”, or suggesting the best place for “mentally ill criminals” is in jail, not in care facilities. No matter how false these narratives might be according to experts, they persist in the popular imagination.
Certainly, in film and other arts, we see many stories of the impressive struggles of people like ourselves in the face of misunderstanding and adversity. However, we also see ourselves on television and in film as antagonists – frightening killers recently escaped from the ‘psych ward’, sexually aggressive predators, uncooperative and badly-behaving mothers, and people of colour caught in a state of weaponized grief – in short, unhinged and dangerous minds. Conditions are wrongly identified, rendered to often dissuade viewers from any empathy, and worryingly have the potential to reinforce fear, stigma, and (at its worst) the statistical reality that individuals with mental health conditions face disproportionate amounts of violence compared to the amount they visit upon others.
If the narratives which surround mental health conditions often vacillate between the romanticizing of ‘mad genius’ (at best) and violent dangers to society (at worst), or somewhere in the middle the tragic dispossession of life on the streets, how can cultural perceptions of mental health be crafted to reflect not only the nuances of ‘living-with’ (rather than merely ‘struggling-against’ or ‘subjects-of’ mental health conditions) but also tell the real stories of living with mental health conditions?
By ‘living-with’ (in my own research), I do not mean a conceptual term to describe people simply accepting their condition as the totality of their existence. Nor is it a gesture to discount genuine challenges posed by mental health conditions. Rather, living-with does away with the dichotomy of either the overly-Romantic (focusing only on tales of recovery or success) or of struggle (various tales – non-fiction and fiction alike of the unsurmountable fight daily against these conditions). Instead, living-with is the recognition of no clear-cut, universalized experience with a ‘magic bullet’ for curing the problem. It is being able to accept the challenges and victories without assigning privilege to either. In short, to give an authentic picture of the lives we lead.
Perhaps a storying turn is required…
Storying, or, Narratives of a Different Fashion
The ‘narrative turn’ in academic scholarship, informed by feminist epistemology (a philosophical tradition concerned with knowledge and belief), has found a home in recent decades with the rise of Mad Studies (MS). MS, a body of scholarship drawing on the lived-experience, knowledge, and practices of psychiatric survivors, individuals with mental health conditions and their allies, seeks to build bodies of work which directly fight against reductive, stigmatizing and agency-depriving understands of one’s mental state as ‘illness’, ‘disorder’, or other forms of medicalized abnormality.
Storying (per Eli Clare) aims to develop accounts of how our stories (everyday experiencers, psychiatric survivors, etc.) can “use our stories to change the world” – to combat the very stigma we face every day. Telling stories, as difficult as it can be, is a fruitful measure by which to resist dominant narratives (like those previously discussed), contest common ideas of mental health, and heal the various wounds/traumas/harms which we experience in relation to stigma.
Storying also takes seriously the experiences of those who experience mental health conditions, not reducing them through lenses of medicalization (these are a list of symptoms that fit X), public health and safety concerns, or the stark raving sayings of ‘loonies’. Rather, storying treats (per Mad Studies) the very content of these experiences as the testimonial knowledge of everyday individuals, survivors, and (most importantly) human beings with a story to tell.
Storying has, of course, its drawbacks. Though stigma is damaging and the proliferation of voices from psychiatric survivors, individuals living various experiences of mental health, and narratives of confronting past traumas gives some hope, there is always a fear of their co-opting. Institutions, campaigns, and research organizations/efforts who aren’t directly living said experiences or who self-servingly seek success stories for promoting their brand or initiative are more than happy to solicit and accumulate lives, testimony, and knowledge – all in the benevolent name of ‘exposure’.
I’m warmed by the prospect of sites like Stigma Fighters, who offer such a platform for a community to share their experiences free of judgment and as a challenge to the many false or truncated narratives of mental health that continue to cycle through the public consciousness. Real accounts (tear-jerking: either in terms of pain or affirmation) of people ‘living-with’ mental health conditions, telling it how it is. Stigma Fighters, in my mind, presents an authentic platform for storying and making-meaning in times when the testimony of those who live-with deserve to hear their voices and those of others like them.
How would you tell your story?