Telling stories is well-established as a powerful marketing and communications tool. As human beings, we respond to stories that trigger our sympathy and empathy.
But recently, I have been pondering about the ethics of the ‘narrativisation of trauma’. I first started to think about this at a mental health event where advocates emphasised the need to people with mental ill-health to ‘share their stories’ to help break down stigma.
It struck me that, given we acknowledge that stigma occurs, isn’t there a tension with relying on people with the lived experience to come forward to challenge that narrative. Indeed, for people sharing their stories, it can be a triple whammy – experiencing the initial trauma, telling the story of that trauma, experiencing the fallout. All elements of that process can be challenging for someone – positive or negative, the fallout from sharing your stories can trigger new and complex emotions. Why is the onus on those with lived experience to break down the system?
I say trauma advisedly. People with lived experience of the mental health system rarely have a story that is all rainbows and puppies. Usually we are compelled to change the system because of our negative experiences and those faced by our loved ones. Don’t get me wrong, lived experience advocates have their place, but as one, let me assure you that it is exhausting to have to stake your claim to change by asserting your own trauma.
Why must we share our stories to justify that we are entitled to better?
This week, I have been contemplating this in light of everything that has emerged about Harvey Weinstein. The onus should be on men not to be sexually aggressive. Yet the discourse has been focused on how it took so long for stories of survival to emerge publicly. And now they have emerged, they only gained such significant weight because of the sheer number and the perceived calibre of those sharing. To borrow from Emma Thompson’s eloquent interview, does it only count if it has happened to loads of people? One story should be enough when we are talking about experiences of such gravity.
Similarly, in mental health, our stories often gain space in the public consciousness when experienced advocates and celebrities speak out about their experience. When archetypal “normal” people share their ‘abnormal’ experiences. Shouldn’t it be sufficient that I have experienced inadequate treatment? More fundamentally, shouldn’t we just be compelled to provide better without being prompted to by our empathy.
Empathy is a powerful emotion (as I’ve written about before). It helps us make connections to others when we don’t share their immediate experiences. It’s the reason ill-advised men try and connect what they are hearing to their own experiences as fathers, husbands and brothers. It gives permission to act, to improve, when you don’t feel like you have a personal experience to draw on.
Allies are an amazing and powerful thing for those of us struggling for change based on our own experiences. They have developed that empathetic response.They make positive change in the world without relying on me to say ‘you should listen to me because I have been there’. They allow the burden to be shared.
I want us to move to a place where we don’t have to assert our stories to be listened to. It is powerful being a lived experience advocate, because inside my safe mental health advocacy bubble, I am never forced to justify myself. My knowledge about how to make the mental health sector better is trusted a priori because I identify as someone with lived experience. But in the ‘outside’ world, I have to stake a claim to my lived knowledge by sharing my mental ill-health.
I think people are scared to be allies because of the narrativisation of trauma. They feel it is false to adopt the stories of others to achieve change. But I want you to know, as someone with lived experience, I don’t want to share my story, I have to.
Just a reminder, that if you are someone with lived experience, you only have to share what you’re comfortable with. I’ve had a couple of conversations lately with people who feel compelled to share their story because they know it is the narrative that drives change. But you don’t have to – there are other ways to make a difference without revisiting your own trauma. If you are unsure, this guide from Suicide Prevention Australia, is a great way to know if you are ready.
And credit to my friend Daniel for thinking through a lot of these ideas with me 🙂