By Brenda Foster

Mental health researcher Patrick Corrigan has long maintained that one of the biggest stigma-busters is interaction with individuals who have lived experience with mental illness. As communicators, we know firsthand how positive personal storytelling can open hearts, minds and conversations about mental health and other sensitive or stigmatized issues. 

I’ve spent many years as a “story facilitator,” guiding youth and adults through the process of sharing their mental health recovery journeys — always with a mutual eye toward diminishing prejudice and fostering help-seeking behaviors. What I’ve learned is that revealing these stories can come at a great cost to the story owners. They often are told how helpful sharing will be for an audience, but not how painful it might be or the consequences it can carry.

Mental Health Awareness Month is an opportunity to focus on storytelling that highlights the journeys of people who have experienced challenges like mental illness, abuse, suicidal ideation or trauma. A laser focus during this time can yield valuable attention and resources for these issues. Most people with lived experience want to share their testimony in service of the greater good. As story facilitators, we also have a responsibility to ensure that story owners are protected during this process and understand the value and potential price of what they’re sharing. 

The best way to approach story facilitation is to view people with lived experience as fellow professionals, acknowledging their right to control how and when their stories are shared. Over the years, generous story partners have helped me hone advice for working with mental health story owners, as well as other individuals who are considering revealing personal experiences for the benefit of others. 

Establish boundaries. First-time storytellers are often eager to help others by sharing their journeys. In some cases, they can be blinded by this motivation. Encourage story owners to think about what aspects they want to share — not everything has to be fair game. For example, would sharing a traumatic family experience have unanticipated personal or professional repercussions? Will sharing certain details put them in legal jeopardy? Could recounting their experiences impact their own wellbeing?

Control consent. Allow the story owner to control how their content is shared. Be prepared with an agreement that includes the intended platforms, formats and audiences for the story. Provide a time limit on how long your organization can use the story without permission or updates.

Find purpose. Work with story owners to identify the goal of sharing, then help them refine the story to ensure that the most salient points are included. Not all stories have to start at the beginning.

Look for objectivity. Communicators and advocates know what stories “sell,” which means that we might not be completely objective when we’re helping story owners find their comfort zone. Advise them to seek the counsel of family, friends or a mental health provider to determine what they want to reveal about their journey. They will be able to help identify areas where an individual’s vulnerability could have consequences. 

Encourage openness and honesty. Even if someone has fully prepared for their story debut, the act of sharing can make them feel exposed. Remind them that, if they’re caught off guard by their own emotions, it’s OK to reveal that to the audience. It’s also perfectly fine to end the experience, if needed. Self-protection should be paramount, and the ultimate decision about how to do that should lie with the story owner.  

Brenda K. Foster, M.P.A., is a senior vice president at Vanguard Communications in Washington, D.C., and an instructor for the graduate program at American University’s School of Communications. She was named a PR News Top Woman in PR and was a finalist for WWPR Woman of the Year.