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How Storytelling Benefits the Mental Health of Medical Students

It’s not easy being a student at the best of times, but add into the mix increased pressure and stress due to a worldwide pandemic, and it’s no wonder we are in the midst of a mental health crisis. A recent quantitative study in BMC Medical Education found that 84.1% of the 741 student respondents felt that COVID-19 has led to a moderate increase in their stress and anxiety levels. This increase is alarming, especially because we know that medical students were already experiencing high rates of depression, even before the pandemic changed our collective lived experience.

How to Combat Anxiety and Depression Through Storytelling

There may be an interesting way to combat instances of anxiety and depression, and Laurel Braitman, Director of Writing and Storytelling at the Stanford School of Medicine’s Medicine and Muse Program, has the prescription that students have been waiting for. A well-attended storytelling retreat—one of the many programs offered—provides students with the opportunity to tap into their creative side by communicating their thoughts, opinions and stories.

In a 2019 TedTalk, Braitman says, “Physicians’ own humanity and emotional wellbeing are almost never made a core part of their training or even acknowledged.” Through the power of storytelling these medical students are given the opportunity to become vulnerable communicators, empathetic listeners and have their voices heard in a meaningful way. Braitman says that every workshop participant would recommend the storytelling experience to others, and participants experience between a 36% to 51% decrease in stress one week after their workshop—with results lasting up to a month.

3 Ways That Storytelling May Support Emotional Well-Being

But what is it that makes storytelling so impactful on our emotional well-being? Here are just three reasons why telling stories may help to improve your mental health.

1. Storytelling offers emotional connection

Telling your story offers a reminder that you’re not alone. In fact, others have probably been down a similar path to you. In her 2019 TedTalk, Braitman says, “sharing a true vulnerable story is a lot like raising a flag up a flagpole.” When you use your voice to share your own personal narrative others can join you under the flag, to either let you know that they hear you and want to support you, or that they’ve been there too.

2. Storytelling teaches us how to be vulnerable

In order to engage in storytelling you must first become vulnerable in your sharing. We recently wrote about 3 different types of empathy—but a key to empathy is leaning into vulnerability. When you open up in a safe space you allow yourself to become vulnerable.

3. Storytelling helps produce change

When you tell a story you open yourself up to potential new insight or understanding—which can lead to positive change in your life. Maybe that means you want to engage in more storytelling, learn more about resilience or prioritize empathy as a medical student. Whatever it is, telling your stories puts you on the track to a new way of thinking.

Storytelling is an outside-the-box way of tapping into your emotions, and helps you to connect with others. It can lead to an improved mindset and help you to cope with life’s stressors. Famed Canadian physician Dr. William Osler said, “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” A great doctor demonstrates empathy, resilience and trust. Medical students who prioritize their well-being will become better, more well-rounded doctors.

To learn more about storytelling please check out the resources below.

Watch: The mental health benefits of storytelling for health care workers
Read: Why storytelling is at the heart of changing attitudes about mental health
Listen: Storytelling, truth-telling, and liberation with Brené Brown and Ashley C. Ford