Everyone has stories to tell. How can the simple act of storytelling support our mental wellness, both individually and collectively? “This is Me”, a storytelling performance at the forthcoming Mental Health Awareness & Wellbeing Festival 2022, takes on precisely this question, offering perspectives from Singapore-based writers of different backgrounds.
ArtsEquator speaks with two of the speakers and one of the facilitators behind the workshops which shaped this programme to find out how their practice in storytelling has allowed them to cultivate deeper self-knowledge and empathy for others, and to use their storytelling skills in service of community care.
Claire Betita de Guzman is a Filipina novelist and former journalist. Mental wellness has been a “recurring theme” in her books, which have candidly depicted the “painful, heartbreaking effects of mental illness on friendship”, among other topics. While Claire’s characters struggle on their journeys, their efforts to understand their emotional landscapes and pursue mental wellness lead them to “fulfillment, self-acceptance and ultimately, true happiness.”
Claire Betita de Guzman
Working in the media, Claire has also covered topics like “stress, finding one’s happiness and how to improve one’s quality of life,” which “were deemed relevant and newsworthy” but only recently “take centre stage in our pages,” compared to before—suggesting an encouraging societal shift towards more open discussion of mental wellness.
Whether through fiction or non-fiction, storytelling has allowed Claire to examine and communicate the ways in which the pursuit of mental wellness is a universal one, and though not without its ups and downs, is worthwhile for the insights and fulfillment it yields.
While individual efforts to pursue mental wellbeing are admirable, the role of structural factors cannot be underestimated. In addition to advocating for policy and social changes, individuals can also play a valuable role in using their voice to communicate accurate information in languages accessible to the communities for whom such knowledge is vital, in many ways harking back to the fundamental, communal essence of storytelling.
Panelist Dimple Kaur, originally from India, is a single mother to an eight-year-old son, and has been working in Singapore as a domestic worker since 2016. The struggles she has overcome in life have moved her to share her knowledge with fellow Punjabi domestic workers in Singapore. Noting that many of them are not fluent in speaking English, she volunteers with an organisation that provides them free language classes.
Dimple also runs a TikTok platform, through which she communicates to her peers, the Ministry of Manpower’s rules and regulations in her native language, to equip other Punjabi domestic workers with accurate and vital information. Through this form of storytelling, in the most practical of ways, Dimple supports her community’s mental wellness by educating them on their fundamental rights so that the risk of them being manipulated or taken advantage of by their employers is reduced.
Each and everyone of us has a multitude of stories to tell. However, we may not even come to fully appreciate this until we turn inward and deeply consider our own unique experiences and perspectives. A trained facilitator and supportive environment, such as a writing workshop, can help greatly with this process.
Serene Goh is a Programme Specialist with SAMH (Singapore Association of Mental Health) Creative Hub. Her work includes facilitating creative programmes, such as the Storytelling with Creative Nonfiction workshop she taught in the lead-up to the upcoming “This is Me” event.
Serene agrees that, like Claire’s characters who embark on the difficult but rewarding journey to understand the contours of their inner landscapes, “self-awareness and insight work plays a big role in mental health and wellness.” Paying attention to “the details of our lives, which can also include how we think, feel and respond to people and situations,” allows us to “glean a lot more from our life experiences.”
The act of acknowledging one’s story by, simply, giving words to it, can be affirming: “We first and foremost get to hear ourselves, and that’s important to have experiences feel real and start to get clearer for the individual,” she explained. When this is shared, it “offers an opportunity for connection beyond the self, and helps a person experience tangibly that they are not alone, because someone else has heard them or perhaps even resonated with them.”
Whether through speaking to readers via published novels and articles, communicating with peers through social media platforms, or facilitating conversations and sharing through creative workshops, it is apparent that storytelling in community extends its benefits greatly.
Serene added: “Community is important in supporting mental well-being because the best communities are like an extension of the individual system, which gets enlarged by the community that supports it. Since the system is larger now, it can also withstand more anxiety and stress that alone, an individual may not be able to.”
What, then, does mental wellness mean to each of these women, given the work they have done and continue to do individually, and for their communities? For Dimple, “mental health and physical health are connected with each other and affect each other.” She believes that both need attention and care in order to live well. Serene highlighted the agency “to be able to lead a full life of [her] own choosing,” and resilience “to cope with challenges that come [her] way.”
Claire echoed this ability for self-mastery, wisely reflecting that “mental wellness is not about being happy all the time, but being able to manage one’s self in different situations, whether good or bad.” Emphasising the importance of community, she concluded: “It is about being genuinely at peace with myself as well as feeling connected with others.” For each of these storytellers in their own right, individual wellness and collective care are inextricably linked.