Stopping Stigmas with Mental Health Storytelling

Photos by Mikaela Burns

Storytelling has always been a universal conveyance of human emotion. Be it a childhood story of the “Three Little Pigs “to something you read last week, stories shape each individual on Colorado College’s campus. Now, story-telling has taken a new form under the guidance of Caleigh Cassidy and the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI).

Cassidy first heard about mental health storytelling through NAMI in Colorado Springs. The initiative is essentially to help mental illness sufferers to develop a cohesive narrative about their mental health and share it with others. “I learned in my abnormal psych class that one of the best ways to destigmatize mental illness is sharing stories and to know people on a more human level before you know about their mental illness. It’s just a great way to build empathy and understand,” Cassidy explained. “You can hear statistics about how common depression is, but if you’ve never experienced it, then it’s hard to help a friend when they are in the depths of depression.”

One of the main goals of mental health storytelling is to destigmatize mental health issues. According to Heather Horton, the director of CC’s Wellness Resource Center, “Mental health is something that pertains to everyone. Everyone has mental health, and we move along a continuum, each of us, in terms of where we are at any given point in time. Students tend to think about mental health as either mental health or mental illness. It’s a false dichotomy. 50 percent of people at some point in their lifetime qualify for a diagnosis of mental illness.” Part of NAMI’s initiative is to show that mental health issues are not black and white, and that anyone can participate in the conversation about mental health. Horton added, “I would like to see the campus conversation broaden a bit in terms of really looking at [mental health] and saying it’s just a part of the human experience. The more openly we can talk about these issues, the better off we all are, both in terms of breaking stigma and also opening up the conversation for folks about how to manage those things and build skill around that.”

Another goal of the mental health storytelling workshop is to help students develop skills in terms of helping those around them who suffer from mental illness. Horton believes an important part of listening to mental health stories is “to build empathy for others and get that better understanding of what mental health challenges look like for people. Empathy also goes hand in hand with being able to be an effective friend or helper to those around us.” Just by listening to a story, any student can develop a better understanding of what a fellow student or friend may be suffering from.

However, one of the most important effects of the storytelling workshop is the effect it has on the storytellers themselves. In developing her own narrative about her mental health experiences, Cassidy expressed, “I think it can be really cool to look back on really tough experiences in a new light and be able to see how much you’ve changed since your hardest times, that can be really powerful.” Horton added, “Just the way the brain works when we experience trauma means that memories tend to get fragmented and sort of separated out and not connected to our broader life experience narrative. Doing the work of building a narrative helps us connect events to our broader lives and our sense of values as a person and the beauty that we bring to the world and not just the challenges that we’re experiencing.” Developing one’s mental health narrative, even without the plan of sharing it, can be extremely therapeutic.

Telling your entire life story in terms of mental illness is no easy task. On the night of the storytelling event in Sacred Grounds, Cassidy stepped up first to share: “It was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. More so than I expected. And standing up there, especially first, was really hard. It takes a lot to stand up in front of people and be that vulnerable. But it was also awesome when I finished and people were really supportive.” Others followed her in sharing their stories, and according to Cassidy, “It was a good space for many in realizing that they weren’t alone and were shown the possibility for recovery.”

In the future, Cassidy wouldn’t change anything about the event, except to have more voices next time, especially male voices. She explained, “there is an increased stigma in terms of the socialization of men in our society that being vulnerable is not something they are allowed to do. They may have this compound instinct of not being able to talk about these things and that can be really hard.” Storytelling may be a method for the general mental health discussion to be much more inclusive. Horton added, “we grow up in a cultural soup and incorporate a lot of messages about a lot of different things that tend to inhibit our ability to really process what’s going on in our lives and developing a narrative can help us process these things.”

Both the workshop for developing mental health narratives and the storytelling event will continue as traditions at CC. NAMI continues to work towards a destigmatized discussion of mental health, and every story aids the initiative. As Cassidy stated, “We want people to know that we care and that CC cares.”

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