One of our great privileges is to work with psychiatric patients on an inpatient, locked unit of a hospital. Clients are committed for a jumble of reasons – psychosis, depression, substance abuse, suicidal behavior, anxiety, aggression – and like a cook’s palette of herbs and spices, any and all of those issues can be mixed and matched, creating complex challenges for patients and clinicians alike.
So what do we do with such an eclectic group? We sit around a table, tell a few stories, and talk about them.
Recently, the activities director on the unit asked us for a brief, written summary that explains why storytelling is therapeutic. These are the words we shared with her.
Storytelling is a seed for growth and a balm for healing. Within every story are characters who mirror human struggle, strain with human emotion, and take human action. Because humanity in spoken stories touches the minds and hearts of listeners, live storytelling opens doorways to their inner worlds. During storytelling sessions on the unit, conversations with patients erupt about many things: emotions; difficulties; communication skills; problem-solving; coping, and; society’s perception about troubled souls, to name a few.
The sessions are effective because storytelling is done live. To accommodate the enormous variety of clinical issues, different tales are told each time. We vary telling style and story content in response to what we observe in listeners. Sometimes we stretch story moments or swap images; sometimes we tenderize the narrative or skip parts. Like word tailors, we adapt the text to measure, striving to make the best fit for the patients.
Best of all, stories contain healing images that can be taken home and remembered as beacons of light in life’s storms. To quote one middle-aged patient after hearing a story about a broken pot that was valued because it was broken: “I will never forget that story for the rest of my life.”
For these reasons and more, storytelling matters to those who hurt and hunger for inner peace.