Mental health concerns have historically been connected to stigma and false assumptions about sufferers. Since the beginning of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has brought mental health concerns and mental illness to the forefront of our collective awareness. Mental health concerns have become a more acceptable topic of conversation.

Still, the stigma around mental illness persists, and patients can become isolated as their families and friends are unsure how to care for them or even act around them. At the same time, medicine is starting to take a new approach to mental illness by applying neuroscientific research and techniques.

Some of this neuroscientific research has shown that our brains react to a good story. But there are more benefits to storytelling. Stories forge connections between humans. For that reason, they can help those with mental health conditions become more relatable. At a more basic level, storytelling also helps patients to better understand their condition and its underlying causes. Plus, stories can amplify positive emotions.


Boosts positive feelings and emotions

Storytelling has measurable, positive effects on the brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that our brains light up when we hear a well-told, engaging story. But the power of storytelling reaches further.

Clinical studies have shown that human brains release the hormone oxytocin, also known as the “love drug”, when people connect to the characters in a story. Oxytocin controls different aspects of our behaviour.

A higher level of oxytocin encourages humans to show more empathy, without which it is almost impossible to connect to others. A study on hospitalised children in intensive care showed that a storytelling session could reduce pain and trigger positive emotional shifts. Whilst much of this research is still in the early stages, and more studies are needed, researchers are already convinced of the benefits.

Neuroscientists believe that storytelling can change a person’s emotional landscape. What about tough or tragic stories? Narrative therapy can give someone suffering from mental health issues the tools to move forward positively. Taking a different approach to their life’s stories and challenging unhealthy beliefs through storytelling can transform the course of their life.


Stories increase understanding

Mental health professionals are discovering the benefits of allowing clients and patients to tell their own stories. By taking the time to listen to the entire back story of the patient and by enabling the patient to rediscover their story in the process, they reach the root causes of the problem.

A few years ago, the McPin Foundation initiated the My Story: Our Future project to connect storytelling and living with psychosis. Researchers hoped that letting sufferers tell their entire story on their own terms would allow better support. This approach differed from the more common focus on the latest episode or crisis.

The approach worked: storytelling helped people living with psychosis to understand events that had led to their condition in the first place. Telling their story in their own words meant finding the path back to the point of origin. The stories also unearthed some previously hidden factors that contributed to the problem.

As a result, those affected and those looking to treat or support them learned to (re-)build trust and establish closer relationships. In addition, people wrestling with mental health problems benefited from a heightened sense of agency.

Telling their story in their own words, and when they were ready to share it, allowed people suffering from mental health problems to take back control. The act of storytelling also became a launchpad for re-writing their future.


Creates brain connections between patients and others

One of the most powerful attributes of storytelling is its ability to create connections between individuals and ideas.

Neuroscientists have now shown a clear connection between what happens in the storyteller’s and the listener’s brain. Traditionally, scientists considered speech comprehension separately from its production. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists have shown that the two are closely connected.

When someone tells a mesmerising story, their brain activity changes and similar changes happen in the listener’s brain with a short delay. The brain activities mirror each other. More remarkably, perhaps, the listener’s brain also shows anticipatory responses. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as the anticipatory speaker-listener coupling. The greater the coupling effect, the stronger the connection between the two parties.

Applying this research to a mental health context shows the potential that storytelling might have. By establishing speaker-listener coupling, anyone suffering from mental health issues could connect to others more meaningfully. This might affect patients’ treatment plans, personal life, and family connections.

These findings are important in another context. When neuroscientists shared their research results, they found that their information was understood better and retained more successfully when they included stories. The content may revolve around neurobiological mechanisms. However, the delivery improved through storytelling.

Neuroscience has made it possible to visualise the effect of storytelling on our brains. Initial research results have been staggering. Scientists prove that connecting to a character in a story causes our brain to release the hormone oxytocin. They also showed a clear neurological connection between the person telling the story and the listener.

Storytelling and narrative therapy have a critical role in mental health care. In mental health care, storytelling is a powerful tool for clients and patients to gain agency. By telling their story in their way, both carers and those cared for can get to the root causes of a condition. Stories also help see contributing factors more clearly. Plus, storytelling is a powerful vehicle to help connect anyone struggling with their mental health to the people around them.