The power of story in psychiatry

Book concept Landscape young boys walking through crop field at sunset
Book concept Landscape young boys walking through crop field at sunset

As a psychiatrist I have the privilege of hearing many stories, those of my patients and also the stories they tell me about their loved ones. The narrative they use often tells the story ‘between the lines’ and these subtle clues make the structure that forms the basis for psychotherapy.

For some patients, the only place their story is heard is within the walls of the therapy room. In this place of impartiality and non-judgement, they can lay out the impact of their journey, and examine the magnitude of events that have occurred within their lives. Often they are moved by the story themselves, once they express it openly thus unlocking many years of thoughts and images and seeing them for what they really are. Often the unveiling of the story is way too confronting and they run from the therapy space, only returning when they have fostered more resilience.

So, yes, one of the most rewarding and powerful aspects of my work is listening to stories. I hold them confidentially, they can play on my mind, but hopefully they are always treated with respect. If I have to relay aspects of the story in referral letters back to their GPs I hope I reframe what I have heard as carefully and accurately as possible. Sometimes when I hear a story that is filled with injustice or total praise I want to tell that story to others so I can advocate for the patient and the system. Sometimes I can do this in a de-identified way, but I write with trepidation, as I would never want a patient to recognise their story in another medium.

As a psychiatrist I often hear the remark “ I bet you could tell a few stories”

The voyeur in all of us would like to know other’s secrets and inner pain. Sometimes people open up to me and reveal their story because they know I am a psychiatrist, others more wary, but I hear stories wherever I go.

So, as a passionate writer I did in fact publish a story. My story of my journey through psychiatry training, what I do all day and what I think about my profession. It was arduous, confronting and difficult at times, but it is one of the things I am most proud of. People bought copies and told me what they thought. And on quite a few occasions I have been told my story resonates with theirs. The most humbling and rewarding comment I could receive; that when my story fell out onto paper it had true meaning to somebody else.

Nowadays I take any opportunity I can to blog and continue to tell stories. And the more I write, the braver I get. Because there is so much to say in psychiatry, and certainly so much to do in advocacy, especially for those that don’t get to tell their story.

Dr Helen Schultz is a psychiatrist and author of How Shrinks Think, her story of her journey through psychiatry training, and life beyond. She is appearing at “The Power of Story” on Friday 4th September 2015 in Melbourne, alongside other health care radicals who are passionate about storytelling in health.

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