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Introducing Real Talk: Storytelling for mental health

ByHannah Wallis

Nov 8, 2017

Lily Asch is the founder of Real Talk, a social enterprise that aims to address mental health through storytelling. Lifestyle’s Hannah Wallis catches up with Lily to hear her story.

When did storytelling reveal itself as a tool for addressing mental health? 

During my second year at the University of Edinburgh, I volunteered to be a TedX student speaker after meeting them at the activities fair. During the speaker-training process I realised that my area of expertise wasn’t necessarily talking about social enterprise – which I was heavily involved in through FreshSight – but in fact talking about my own experiences, and in particular mental health. This process was cathartic, and I felt a sense of accomplishment for opening up about them for the first time. What’s more, through talking about this project and my experiences, it tended to open up a conversation with others to share their own stories. It was then I realised that we lack the ‘safe spaces’ to talk frankly about mental health.

Why is storytelling so effective in overcoming the stigma that surrounds mental health? 

Stories are proven to help build empathy, to share information in a mindful and intentional way, which isn’t exploitative. People are able to tune in and develop compassion in a broader way through stories, as they illustrate what is on the inside, addressing the difficulty that some people have in understanding an invisible illness. As I found, the talking process is very therapeutic, and helps you to feel less isolated. Storytelling also helps friends and family who can often feel helpless when a loved one is suffering; many comment that attending has given them real insight into how their loved one might be feeling.

So how did Real Talk come about?

 When a grant for a wellbeing initiative from EUSA [the Students’s Association] came available, the storytelling idea transformed into reality; I began running workshops that would empower people to share their stories, through the help of a professional storyteller, Alette Willis, equipping volunteers with the tools to talk about their experiences. I put a Facebook group together to gather volunteers, who then shared their stories event at the Scottish Storystelling Centre on the Royal Mile.

What happens at the Storytelling event? 

It’s a magical event; the range of stories is so incredible. Some people get so metaphoric, others are so explicit, and there are others in between. We also use prompts to get people talking – including the audience, engaging everyone in the conversation, and creating a safe space for people to ask questions and feel comfortable. Safe space[s] can be quite a contentious issue but for me it’s not: it’s just about being comfortable.

Who are the people that participate in the storytelling sessions? 

We’ve had people from 18 to 70 years old get involved from all different backgrounds, countries, and including students, working professionals and unemployed individuals. We use social media to advertise for speakers and for events, asking “do you have a story waiting to be told?” which, being non-prescriptive, means there is real diversity in the participants. This reflects the fact that ill-mental health can affect anyone and everyone, and take so many different forms.

What do you think about the language that we use when talking about mental health? 

Language is very important. I can’t help but laugh when people say they have mental health – we all do! I prefer the term ‘mental ill-health’, but it’s a continuum, whereby you can have good mental health and mental illness, and vice versa. It really depends on the person and how they want to term it; diagnosis can be the best or worst thing to happen to them, and we should be careful about labelling, as our poor use of vocabulary in the past has been a main contributor to the stigma that surrounds mental health.

What’s the next event and how can students get involved? 

The next event is in January, but I’m also considering running a student-specific storytelling session. I’m open to people reaching out – I want to hear opinions and to open Real Talk up. I’d suggest keeping an eye on upcoming events through social media, and the website which is launching in two weeks time!

What does the future hold for you, and for Real Talk? What are your aims? 

Ultimately the aim should be that initiatives like this are made redundant, but I want Real Talk to continue for as long as it is needed. I’m thinking about doing more educational events alongside the storytelling, to demonstrate the range of therapies available, as well as starting a self-care training course.

I’m training to be a counsellor, and am volunteering with Turn Your Life Around, a charity that spreads resilience and hope among schools around Edinburgh. I’ve also been named a trustee for Wellspring, a charity that delivers counselling services to young people in Edinburgh.

What would be your message to students and people suffering from or just interested in mental health issues?  

If you’re struggling, it’s ok to ask for help, and don’t give up if the first person you speak to doesn’t work out. It could be your cat, friend, anyone or everyone; just have a conversation. And with me!


image: Elisariva via Pixabay

By Hannah Wallis

Hannah edits the TV & Radio section of The Student having previously written for lifestyle.

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