Storytelling for Health was a conference that was so much more than the sum of its parts, and which underlined the central importance of storytelling for health, well-being and health-care services. As Andrew Davies, Chair of Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board, in his opening addresses at both the Posters and Displays Reception on Thursday evening and the opening plenary with keynote speakers on Friday morning so eloquently expressed in the context of the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board’s strategy, storytelling and the arts are “not just a nice addition”, they are “central”.
One notable theme which came across from the constellation of talks, workshops and sessions was the value of story-telling, arts and humanities to assist people/patients in becoming and remaining well. The transformational effects of the arts and humanities constitute a measurable health and social benefit, ranging from reduced drug intake, quicker recovery to relieving pressure on hospital and healthcare services.
The poignant performance and videos delivered by Re-live on Thursday evening underlined in a truly moving manner the value of storytelling in helping those with mental illnesses move on and accomplish things beyond their expectations. In addition storytelling has an important role to play in palliative care and as we age.
However, storytelling not only benefits those with illnesses and chronic conditions, it facilitates the continual development of those working in healthcare so that they become more responsive and provide the best care. It is instrumental in pedagogy promoting the training of nurses and medical students with Amanda Page explaining how storytelling nights can be valuable aids in nursing education and Rachel Leyland expounding how medical students use stories to make “sense of the messy and difficult bits” when dealing with patients’ and their experiences. In addition, Jo Odell’s presentation on “The use of stories, collaboration and creativity in the evaluation of the Patients First Programme” furnished examples of how storytelling could be used to assess the learning of nurses. The long term gains from such instruction were endorsed in Clive Weston, John Rees and Cindy Hayward’s talk on reading and response to medical students’ written reflections (reflecting, reading, writing, responding), amply demonstrating the potency of storytelling to profit and sustain the practitioner as well as the patient, once it becomes embedded in clinical practise.
Moreover, through narratives patients, those with chronic conditions, can become collaborators, can become active in managing their needs. Peta Bush raised the merit of using patient narratives, stories documented on collage boxes to inspire and inform the design for care process. Instead of producing wearables (to support joints) in neoprene, which are “hot, sweaty, and factories for bacteria”, with noisy intrusive velcro fastenings, that do not fit with wearers’ identities, you can co-design more empathetic devices with their input, drawing inspiration from jewellery, nature and so forth.
The poster and exhibition display, in which I was privileged to have a poster on “Tinnitus Narratives: Encounters with heterogeneous noises” which addressed the use of stories and language in researching and providing care pathways for those living with tinnitus, featured a diverse range of projects and approaches. Rebecca Smart and Jack Eastwood’s poster on “Untold Stories” addressed the impact of storytelling and multimodal arts psychotherapy on an older adult mental health inpatient ward, whilst Helen Prior and Mind Cymru in their Poster on “Telling it like it is- stories of mental health” focused on how personal stories can be used to support the mental and emotional health of people and their communities, raise awareness, challenge stigma, and influence service delivery. Evidence of the depth and variety of the approaches can be sensed by the juxtaposition of Emma Lazenby and ForMed Films’ work in creating powerful films for medical education on topics such having a baby after post-natal depression and Allison Galbraith’s sharing of the Playlist for Life’s use of life-story and music in dementia care. Alongside the posters were exhibitions which included the Storytelling Cloak, a tie-dyed cloak, in which each tie dye represents a storyteller from the storyteller training in health care settings programme, decorated with woollen flowers from knitters around the UK. The final flower for this cloak, intended to reclaim well-being, is one which will represent the Storytelling for Health conference delegates’ responses.
The flowers, stories and conversations which commenced at this conference will live on and generate new narratives and initiatives.
Saturday afternoon, 2.30pm – what a slot! the end of the conference and competing with the final key note presentation for an audience – I was pretty sure the storytelling at end of life session would have a fairly small audience. Still, I reasoned, those there would be really interested in the subject matter so we would have the opportunity for a lively debate amongst what promised to be an excellent group of presenters.
Well, I was completely wrong as to turn out – the session was well attended and our audience fully engaged. I was delighted to hear about the range of approaches to this work. The group approach we take at Sharing Stories for Wellbeing contrasted beautifully with the oral history led programme Pass it On. Speakers and audience had the opportunity to consider practical and ethical questions when working with patients at end of life. A healthy debate followed and practitioners from a range of backgrounds – academic, social work, therapists and clinicians all recognized storytelling as a powerful way to communicate with the person rather than the patient.
I was touched by the generosity of Jemma Newkirk and Lesley Goodburn in sharing their personal stories. They reminded me yet again of how precious the stories are that we each hold and the privilege it is as a practitioner and trainer to have biographical stories shared with me.
The conference itself was a great way to showcase the range of projects taking place. By the end of Day One, I found myself rather wishing that I lived in Wales where there would appear to be a real enthusiasm for experimenting with storytelling led approaches into health and wellbeing! By the end of Day Three, I felt equipped to continue to drive my own area of practice forward towards making life story sharing available more widely.
This conference was an unexpected gift and one that I will value for a long time to come. I arrived in Swansea after a long journey on Thursday feeling squeezed and tired, and drove away on Saturday evening with a head bursting with stories, reinvigorated by the power of human connection, and with new and re-discovered narratives for my own life and work.
It is now two, nearly three, weeks on (I am embarrassingly late with this blog post) and I remain energised and inspired to broaden my work using writing in the field of health and storytelling.
Three performances have stayed fresh in my mind. I was mesmerised by STOLEN by the Devil’s Violin, a romping allegory of Daniel Morden’s cancer journey told with passion and vitality against a backdrop evocative string music; and
I no less affected by the strong and unambiguous patient voices that spoke out from Joseph Sobol’s Dispatches from the Other Kingdom and Karma Waltonen’s brazen comedy sketch about living with chronic pain.
At the Narrative Therapy Workshop in the wonderful reading room I used the tale of the Wizard King, and a method developed by therapists to help people to work through domestic violence and trauma, to rewrite the end of my own marriage and emerged as a wise and wonderful fairy godmother. In the same room David Alderson’s candid and haunting retelling of an operation gone wrong resonated with my own experience of a surgical bungle and revealed fresh perspectives.
The End of Life stories session stayed with me too and re-awakened a desire I have to work in this field. I can also recall the Pope and Feather joke that Dan Yashinsky shared with Milton’s wife as he lay dying – and I never remember jokes -- and the enchanting ceremony that he created with a patient called Ed to honour people’s lives in the storm of depression.
I wasn’t able to get to Jac Saorsa’s talk but was lucky to meet her when I went to see her Cancer Ward 12 exhibition one lunchtime and remain haunted by the strength in the face of a woman who had asked to be painted in her dying days.
My only disappointment was not to have been able to attend more sessions. This is a common experience at conferences with parallel sessions but never have I felt so torn on so many occasions, which is testament to the depth and richness of this wonderful event.
In particular, I would have loved to have heard Daniel Morden talk about the creation of STOLEN, to have taken part in the letter to the breath workshop and to have attended the session on Patient Stories.
Thank you so much to the organisers for their creativity and hard work.