Storytelling and Wellbeing at the Well: report from the research colloquium

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On the morning of July 4th, a group of 19 storytellers met at St Donat’s castle to share their work and research into using oral storytelling for healing people and communities.  This colloquium was the first half of “The Well at the World’s End”, a full-day event on storytelling, health and wellbeing organised by Steve Killick and myself in the lead up to the Beyond the Border Festival in Wales.

Steve and I met a couple of years ago at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.  We discovered a shared interest in storytelling for healing and in documenting story’s powers.  Our first plan was to co-author a review of the academic literature on oral storytelling and well-being.  If any of you have ever done a search on Google scholar using the keyword “storytelling”, you’ll know that it’s used for everything from video games to marketing studies, but most usually for studies of books, reading and literacy.  The one thing that’s really hard to find is an article on traditional oral storytelling.

So plan B. In the true spirit of storytelling, we decided to get people together, face-to-face, and ask them about their use of storytelling for health and wellbeing.  And so the research colloquium was conceived.  After sending virtual flyers out on all our networks, more than 40 people expressed an interest in it.  On the day, we had social workers, psychiatric nurses, speech and language therapists, psychologists, educators, academics, activists and arts workers, including full-time storytellers.  This diverse group shared stories of their work in schools, homes, community centres, hospitals, universities, refugee camps, nursing homes and even police stations.

While these 19 storytellers worked in a range of contexts with a diversity of people, a thread of similarity ran around the circle, a thread of connection.  Storytelling connects people, it connects nurses and therapists to their patients, it connects lawyers to the asylum seekers they represent, it connects foster carers to the children they care for, it connects and reconnects communities torn apart from natural disasters, wars and terrorism, it connects people to the places where they live and to the more-than-human organisms that live among.

The neoliberal world we live in today is one of disconnection.  Many of the mental health issues that plague our societies are rooted in our experience of separation from each other, from the places where we live and from the earth communities we were born into.  Stories heal through connecting us to meaning, when told in the traditional manner they also provide us with a direct, visceral experience of community.

The other theme that emerged that morning was a desire to spread the word about the utility of storytelling.  Everyone sitting in that circle had first-hand experiences of the healing power of story.  But in a disconnected, hyper-mediated world, we have to assume that most people have never even been told a story.  If we want to get storytelling into more schools, universities, hospitals and communities, then we have to collect, compile and disseminate evidence of its effectiveness.  Research, both inside and outside the academy, has a part to play in this.  The colloquium is a step towards documenting the contribution storytelling can bring to healing our world.

Stay tuned to this page for further developments.

Thanks to Beyond the Border and to the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling for supporting “The Well at the World’s End”.

P.S. for another view on the day, see participant Emma Parfitt’s write up on her blog: Storytelling 4 Health.

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