Before becoming a mental health advocate, I worked in East Africa. I had been chosen to partner with a community in rural Uganda to help an incredible family build a health clinic in their disconnected village.
My job was to raise $20,000 to build the clinic, report on-the-ground developments and, most importantly, share the narrative of progress and impact with donors back home. Because of this, my life revolved around stories. It was then that I learned a significant truth:
Storytelling can change the world.
Stereotypes and stigmas about Africa seemed to follow me during my work in Uganda. To many Americans, Africa’s reality was based on what they saw on the news: violence, AIDS, poverty, and a population that deserved our pity. Too many people used incomplete information to build a negative narrative of an entire continent, perpetuating stereotypes and creating barriers.
Generally speaking, it seemed to me that Americans couldn’t relate to the story of Africa. A disconnection was crystalized, one that continues to pave the way for the continent’s dehumanization and marginalization.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author, calls this phenomenon of prejudice and stereotyping the “danger of a single story.” She says:
I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
During my first week in Uganda, I was underneath a mango tree, listening to my host father and mentor, Mukisa, tell me the narrative of his life. He told me stories of terrible adversity and extraordinary determination, of his shameful memories becoming foundations of his strength, of incredible transformation wrestled from the depths of marginalization and grief.
I soaked these stories in and shared them with my family and friends back home; they created a life-changing connection for me between my old American world and my new Ugandan one.
Because of the power of Mukisa’s stories, I exceeded my goal and raised $24,000 to build The Suubi Health Clinic for women and children. They were the catalyst for his community’s transformation. His words challenged the negative African stereotype. My friends and family were able to see themselves in his story and they decided to invest in his dream. Storytelling changed his world.
What does storytelling have to do with mental health? Everything.
Think of all the “single stories” people weave in their mind when they hear words like: mental illness, depression, bipolar, psychosis, and schizophrenia.
There is a negative narrative that exists in our culture when it comes to youth with mental health needs. Their “single story” does exactly what Adichie suggests: it causes disconnection, inequality, and marginalization.
That’s why efforts like The Chronicle’s Blogger Co-op is so powerful: it provides a platform to tell the complete story of young people’s experience with mental health. It connects us to profound stories of real life challenge and success. Instead of highlighting the ways we are different, it insists on the ways we are the same.
It connects us to stories on how policy can impact real lives, for better or worse. But most importantly, it forms the foundation for our work: to fight for those with unmet mental health needs.
Readers are in the battle with us. You, too, understand the power of storytelling. You, too, see how the voices here are powerful and mobilizing. You too, know how their storytelling can alter the “single story” of mental health. How their storytelling, when given a platform, can change the world.
Helen Seely is the communications coordinator at Young Minds Advocacy Project, a California-based group that advocates for appropriate mental health services for low-income children and adolescents