We believe storytelling has the power to remove stigma. But to understand what kind of storytelling makes an impact, we must first understand who is receiving those stories and what perspective they bring to the conversation. From there, we can determine the best format for delivering a story to an audience in a way that creates empathy and connection.

Keep reading to learn best practices for using storytelling to support the conversation around mental health and remove stigma.

What story are we telling?

Poor mental health thrives in darkness, when people feel too afraid to share their struggles. It thrives in confusion and a misunderstanding of what it means to face mental health challenges, adding to harmful myths that keep people from sharing when they need help. The smallest act of allyship – such as sharing a story from one person to another – can help remove stigma and encourage help-seeking behavior. When we share stories that were once invisible, it brings the conversation into the light and solidifies the topic as important, relevant, timely – and something okay to talk about.

Major mental health organizations promote this same idea. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988) says in their storytelling guide, “By sharing a wide variety of mental health experiences and the myriad ways in which we cope with crisis, we can help others find hope and meaning, and recognize ourselves in each other’s stories.” When stories are shared amongst peers, it is even more validating. It allows for connection between people facing similar struggles and builds empathy within those who might not have previously understood.

In the media and entertainment outlets, we see a propensity to focus on the negative and the shocking. With mental health and suicide prevention topics, there are clear boundaries for what helps and what hurts. For example, leaving out details of specific suicide attempt methodologies is a must – those details are always excluded from stories we’re telling. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, also published a storytelling guide that promotes focusing on recovery, what has helped and how we can make positive changes for others. The Mental Health Media Guide was developed by a coalition of mental health experts and media outlets, designed to encourage positive mental health portrayals and provide best practices and evidence-based recommendations to ensure that storylines don’t contribute to negative stigma. They encourage storylines to show what real help looks like and to depict more people who are addressing mental health.

The stories we tell acknowledge the struggle, validate the mental health condition, focus on help-seeking behaviors and call for needed change. This provides hope, making help feel possible and providing a path forward.

How are we telling it?

There is no shortage of ways to communicate right now. Teens today have never known a world without constant access to media, connectivity and digital methods of communication. While social media certainly poses challenges of its own related to mental health, it also allows for an acceleration of the movement towards positive mental health. 

The digital delivery of positive mental health stories allows for wider reach – both in an increase of stories collected and more people to receive those stories. It also allows for increased engagement in a public forum that would not be possible outside of the digital sphere. The conversation is ongoing, constant, easily accessible and can spread. It allows for anyone to engage in it, so all peer groups from teens to parents to educators can interact with one another in a space they wouldn’t otherwise find themselves. 

Studies also show that social media sites are becoming popular places for teens and young adults to seek out health information. In addition, research has shown that people with stigmatized illnesses, such as mental health conditions, avoid seeking health care or education. They are significantly more likely to use the internet for this type of support. If teens and those with mental health struggles are already turning to online resources and searching social media for advice and support, delivering stories to those same spaces meets them where they are and allows them to more easily find the kind of content that can make a difference. 

Some benefits to using social media for health communication include:

  1. Increased interactions with others
  2. More available, shared and tailored information
  3. Peer, social and emotional support
  4. Potential to influence health policy

With Zero Reasons Why, social media provides similar benefits, ranging from peer-to-peer interaction, tailored information for a specific location of the campaign, feeling supported and the ability to communicate stories that can influence public perception and policy change.