Storytelling for Wellness

by Kaitlin Sandmann '19, Storytellers Fellowship
December 5, 2017

Impact of Storytelling

Valerie Tutson ‘87 MA ‘90 has identified as a storyteller since she was a child. In her talk “Storytelling Medicine,” given on Oct. 4, she said that she had “a feeling before [she] had words what the power of storytelling was.”

Her life is a testament to this power.

Tutson graduated Brown University with a degree in an independent concentration entitled Storytelling as a Communications Art and a Masters in Theatre Arts. Since then, she has founded Rhode Island Black Storytellers and hosted the award-winning show “Cultural Tapestry;” she has held workshops, served on committees, and taught classes dedicated to promoting storytelling.

In “Storytelling Medicine,” Tutson focused on an aspect of storytelling that has recently gained precedence: storytelling as a proponent of well-being. Informed by her time telling stories in a waiting room of the Tomorrow Fund Clinic at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, she depicted storytelling as an integral part of any healthcare system. “In so much of how we experience medicine in our culture, the body… is pain filled, and is disconnected,” Tutson said. Storytelling, she feels, can be used to relieve this disconnection.

Tutson asserted that storytelling offers a form of “enchantment,” bringing wonder to someone who feels pain or isolation. She said, “The place where [storytelling] gets to be medicine is where that enchantment happens.”

Her certainty about the value of connection through story informs her work at the Tomorrow Clinic, where she interacts with children and families affected by cancer. Her role entails using storytelling to help them get to “a place of hope, or at least pain-free for a little while.” Through telling stories, she hopes to help children and families feel a sense of control.

“When we empower people — when we give them a journey that they can take… all we’re doing is seeing them,” Tutson said.

Storytelling Reveals Complexity

For clinicians, a focus on storytelling may indeed help to fully see and understand their patients. Jay Baruch, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, uses his experience as a storyteller to inform his work as an emergency room doctor.

He said in an interview that knowledge of narrative helps him to remember, even in the necessarily fast-moving environment of an emergency clinic, that “there are human beings at the end of the statistics.” His writing helps him to “unpack small moments as a window into big issues.”

Narrative, according to Baruch, provides the tools to recognize the complexities and possibilities inherent in every interaction. Baruch reiterated how imperative is to face uncertainty, saying, “Something inherently human is lost when we don’t dive into the complexity of ideas.”

This is particularly true when looking at symptoms and stories patients bring to the emergency room. “Unless you have the story right,” he said, “you don’t know how to respond to them.”     

When clinicians care about the story, this places autonomy and empowerment with patients. Baruch suggested that many individuals feel lost in the medical system; those who are scared and unsure of how to quickly gain access to get a medical opinion may “come to the ER just to touch something.”

Given this, Baruch said that clinicians need to look at “who’s telling the story, why they’re telling the story, the things they leave out, the language that they use,” and pointed out that “you could talk about writing in those terms.”

Baruch also described storytelling as an opportunity to reestablish a sense of self in a medical situation that may alter an individual’s self-image. “We’re all sort of creating versions of our lives on a daily basis — in that way we’re all creative,” Baruch said. “Part of that is the stories we’re telling ourselves, whether it’s past stories, future goals, aspirations… it’s sort of relevant when you think about where illness fits into that, because that really is a blow to our sense of selves.” 

Empowerment via Narrative 

Developing a narrative around situations that complicate or are integral to one’s sense of self is the focus of BWell Storytellers, an initiative piloted in Fall ‘17 at Brown University through the BWell Office of Health Promotion. This group aims to empower individuals by giving them the tools to develop and express their own narratives.

In an interview, Marc Peters, facilitator of BWell Storytellers, defined storytelling as “sharing your story for the purpose of moving other people, inspiring people to action, taking control of your narrative.” While he certainly ascribes great power to listening, describing hearing others’ stories as “critical to development of empathy,” his focus in BWell Storytellers is primarily on providing space to explore one’s own story.

The BWell Storytellers has fluctuated in size throughout its weekly 90-minute meetings. Meetings entail a warm-up storytelling exercise followed by a 30-minute writing exercise. Members of the group are encouraged to share their stories if they feel comfortable; each session ends with affirmations for self and for others present. Peters does not have a preconceived notion of what the end product of the BWell Storytellers will be; for him, the focus is on helping individuals take control over their narratives rather than on the creation of a tangible end result. The work done in the space is “about motivation, not medium.”  

Peters cited an environment in which people feel comfortable developing their stories as crucial to the storytelling process. Student facilitator Shira Buchsbaum ‘19 said in an interview that storytelling might be particularly crucial on college campuses, saying, “There’s a lot of pain on this campus — because we are human, because we are young people,” but added that, for many of the issues students face, “there’s a lot of stigma around talking about those things.”

Through BWell Storytellers, she hopes students will “describe and interrogate feelings in a healthy way” in an environment of trust and shared exploration. This environment provides the tools and questions that start conversations and build stories, as well as giving the opportunity to “hear that other people have difficult relationships, have different traumas — hearing other people say me too, I’m struggling with that too — is so powerful.”

Arts in Healthcare 

The evident importance of storytelling, and the importance of creativity to wellness, has helped to foster a national discussion on the place of arts in healthcare, including the creation of the National Organization for Arts in Health (NOAH). Rhode Island’s Arts and Health Advisory Group is one of the first groups to explore the evidence around the importance of artistic pursuits to healthcare. This group, made up of researchers, artists, physicians, and policy makers, is devoted to making evidence-based policy recommendations that will promote art as a path to wellness.

At a Nov. 29 talk entitled “Empowering Health, Creatively,” a panel of representatives from this group spoke to its history and goals. The panel was made up of Rachel Balaban of Artists and Scientists as Partners (ASaP), Steven Boudreau of the State of Rhode Island Department of Health, Sherilyn Brown of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA) and Stacey Springs of the Brown University School of Public Health. 

Looking for empirical data to support policy recommendations has been fruitful, but has also revealed evidence gaps. Springs pointed out that medical literature focuses on patients and their outcomes, but that “when it comes to voices… this is where the evidence lets us down.” Brown added that gaps in research do not reflect lack of evidence; for artists, she said, it can feel obvious, since “we know it, we see it every day.” To remedy the evidence gaps, she said that artists and researchers need to work to “document the wonderful things already happening every day.”  

The group reiterated the importance of developing a narrative that fits an individual’s identity, and offered artistic pursuits as a chance to employ this storytelling method. Balaban, who teaches dance to individuals with Parkinson’s disease, said that her students “are never patients when they are in the studio; they are people, they are artists, they are dancers.”

The idea of community also emerged: Brown said that bringing art into health is about “moving from isolation to support.”

Balaban said that the goal of the Arts and Health Advisory Group is to tangibly display that bringing the arts into clinical practices “is not just a nice little thing to do,” but something that can truly change lives. Perhaps the proposed function of storytelling in well-being is best summarized by Baruch: “I don’t think necessarily there’s a role for story — it’s all story.”


Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect that Jay Baruch, MD, is an associate professor of emergency medicine, not an assistant professor as previously published.