I am attending the TheMHS conference this week and I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on one of the presentations I have watched so far.
The presentation was by ACT's very own Terri Warner - educator & trainer, advocate, and Chair of the ACT Mental Health Consumer Network. Terri spoke of lived experience storytelling and the emotional impact of this work.
The aspect of the presentation which really struck me as I was listening, was Terri's discussion of the internal conflict caused by having to craft a recovery focused story designed to inspire hope in the audience, while simultaneously knowing that one's real experience was much more complex and maybe not at all as clear cut as the story portrays.
Working in the mental health sector, we know that Recovery is rarely a simple and linear process. Rather it is complex, cyclical and messy for most people. It is also embedded in our understanding of Recovery that the end point is rarely an absence of symptoms, but rather the ability to live a fulfilling life while managing an ongoing condition.
However, when people with lived experience work with MIEACT and other organisations to craft and deliver personal stories, those stories have to conform with the organisation's focus on reducing stigma, keeping the audience safe, and inspiring hope. This is the purpose of that form of storytelling, which we also all know is a tremendously powerful.
Terri pointed out that the feeling of dissonance between the crafted story and one's own experience or "true" story, is the major cause of burn-out in the population of storytellers. This is closely tied to the concept of 'emotional labour', which in this context relates to having to use genuine emotion to invoke an emotional response in the audience. Emotion is critical to achieve the outcomes of reducing stigma and inspiring hope, but such emotional labour can be highly emotionally draining, in particular where there is internal dissonance as described above.
It is natural that stories are 'censored' in this context because we are talking about purposeful storytelling, crafted to achieve an outcome. This is in contrast to a therapeutic setting in which it may well be appropriate for someone to tell their story as they experience it - good, bad and ugly. However, we have to be conscious that we are sometimes asking people to over-simplify a story that is really very complex, and that this has an impact on them.
In conversation afterwards, Terri and I also discussed how a similar dynamic plays out in the Recovery College. The College has to be a safe place for everyone, and lived experience educators are trained to ensure they tell their stories in a way that is safe for the audience. However, the students also want to and need to share and tell their stories, and this creates a potential for the space to become unsafe for students (or educators). The College has to be a space where it is OK for people not to be OK; where it is OK for people not to be perfect examples of Recovery; a space where we can share authentically and know that other people understand and accept us. But more than anything the College has to be a safe place! This means there is an inherent potential for conflict between competing values and needs.
I think these two examples show the potential for conflict between authenticity and purposeful storytelling. A MIEACT story has to feel authentic to the storyteller, but it also has to serve a purpose. In the Recovery College students must be able to share authentically, but with the purpose of adding to everyone's learning. We can't shy away from the fact that many people with lived experience have had awful and appalling experiences, but we also can't neglect our responsibility to keep people safe and progressing towards a better future. This dilemma is not going to go away and what we must do is to turn this into a creative tension, which drives us to improve and do better each day.
-Simon Viereck, MHCC ACT EO