Increasingly, mental health professionals are considering the pros and cons of using recovery narratives as part of the therapy process.
Some researchers define the recovery narrative as “a particular kind of story produced within specific sites: commissioned by or facilitated within mental health services; championed by charities and in mental health campaigns; presented formally at mental health conferences; and promoted by alternative or activist movements.”
Regardless of its delivery context, a recovery narrative is one that recounts an individual’s personal reckoning with adversity, which the person has overcome and thrives in spite of.
While “recovery” can occur in relation to many different health events, some of the most prominent recovery narratives refer to people’s experiences with mental health issues, ranging from depression to eating disorders.
So, from the perspective of a person facing mental health problems, does it help to have access to other people’s recovery stories?
A new systematic review conducted by researchers from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, in collaboration with specialists from other institutions, suggests that the answer may be “yes” — though not for everyone.
Others’ stories can reduce isolation
This new research, which forms part of the Narrative Experiences Online study, screened hundreds of books and articles from 2000–2018 and identified 45 studies that focused on the therapeutic impact of 629 recovery narratives.
Study author Stefan Rennick-Egglestone explains that he and his team were interested in determining whether accessing other people’s stories of recovery following an experience of ill mental health would be useful in helping another individual progress on their own healing process.
More specifically, the scientists assessed how people might respond to others’ recovery narratives, and whether such stories would allow them to feel seen and included as well as better understand facts related to mental health and therapy.
Many initiatives have made a range of recovery stories freely available online. This often occurs as part of campaigns aiming to put an end to the stigma surrounding mental health and the widespread lack of support and awareness when it comes to these issues.
The research, the results of which appear in the journal PLOS One, concludes that such personal narratives can be helpful to practiced mental health professionals offering support to their clients.
Also, they can be particularly helpful to people facing mental health issues who are isolated and have limited access to appropriate resources. This includes people from isolated rural areas or minority communities.
“We wondered whether stories of recovery might help people who find it difficult to access other forms of mental health treatment,” says Rennick-Egglestone, “such as people living in rural locations or experiencing social anxiety.”
And, he goes on, “we found that they can, as long as possible negative impacts are managed carefully.”
A call to increase narrative diversity
That said, the researchers note that not all recovery narratives will be 100% helpful, and some may even do more harm than good.
For example, stories that include detailed personal accounts of self-harm — especially those that are related to eating disorders — may trigger further trauma in people dealing with similar problems.
The study authors warn that “[c]are is needed to ensure that recovery narrative interventions are used to expand the available choices within the narrating of recovery instead of curtailing them.”
In their conclusion, they also call for the diversification of the recovery narratives currently available to people seeking mental health support:
“Mental health narrative researchers should aim to increase the diversity of populations invited to tell their recovery story.”