The mental health benefits of storytelling for health care workers | Laurel Braitman

For the last few years, I've been a writer in residenceat the Stanford Medical School.

I was hired by an incredible woman, she's a poet and an anesthesiologist, named Audrey Shafer, and she started the Medicineand the Muse Program to reintroduce humanities backinto medical education and training.

My job was to teach writing, storytelling and general communication skills to physicians, nurses, medical students and other health care workers.

And I thought I'd geta ton of great student essays about dissecting cadaversand poems about the spleen.

And I did.

But almost immediately, I started getting more essaysthat made me really anxious and really worried.

My students were writingabout their crushing anxiety, the unbearable pressureon them to succeed, their mental health diagnoses, their suicide attempts, how alone and isolated they felt and wondered if they'd goneinto the right profession, and they weren't even doctors yet.

This is my student Uriel Sanchez.

(Audio) Uriel Sanchez:The choice you are given through medicine, from a lot of your mentors even, is like, you have to choose, like, being a really good personor a really good doctor.

(Music) Laurel Braitman: Physicians' own humanityand emotional well-being are almost never madea core part of their training or even acknowledged.

And real vulnerability, like sharing certain mental healthdiagnoses, for example, can be absolutely career-ending.

But nearly 30 percent of Americanmedical students are depressed, and one in 10 have thought about suicide.

And it's actually even worsefor practicing physicians.

There's really widespreadjob dissatisfaction, high rates of depression, and doctors have oneof the highest suicide rates of any profession in the United Sates.

This is scary.

Not just for them but for us, too.

I really think doctorshave the most important job.

And if their lives are at stake, ours are, too.

Now, I am absolutely nota mental health professional, I'm a writer, which most days is absolutelythe complete and total opposite.

But I can tell youthat the more opportunities that I give health care workers to share their daily frustrations, their fears, their joys, what surprises them, what they resent, the better they seem to feel.

So at Medicine and the Muse, we offer evening, weekend and day-long storytelling workshops at farms and other placeswith really good food.

I invite other journalists, writers, producers, podcasters and poets, and they teach writing, communication and storytelling skillsto our participants.

And those participantspractice being vulnerable by sharing their storiesout loud with one another.

And in doing so, they reconnect with what drew themto medicine in the first place.

These are the skills they'll draw on when they realize and are confrontedwith the stressful, messy reality of the work they've chosen.

This is how they realize it's a calling.

So I have a prescriptionhere for you today.

It's not from physicians, it's for them, and I asked my students for help.

And before I start, let me just say I work with doctors, but I'm absolutely convinced that this appliesto almost any profession, especially those of uswho are so committed to our work, and it can be so intense and overwhelming, that sometimes we forgetwhy we chose to do it in the first place.

To me, sharing a true vulnerable story is a lot like raisinga flag up a flagpole.

Other people see it, if they agree with itand it resonates with them, they come and stand under it with you.

That's what my studentMaite Van Hentenryck did.

(Audio) Maite Van Hentenryck:I mean, it was super anxiety-inducing, and I shared parts of myself that I really have probably toldfive classmates.

LB: When Maite was a baby, she had to have her leg amputated.

When she got to medical school, she was taking just a standard class quiz, and she got asked the question, “Please tell us about the first time you encountered someonewith a disability.

” She wondered if her supervisorshad ever considered that the person with the disabilitywas her, the doctor.

So she talked about it in frontof about 100 of her friends, peers, which is a big deal, because, you know, she's really shy.

And afterwards, what happened, is a number of students with disabilities, that she didn't know, came up to her and asked herto colead a group on campus that's now advocating for more visibilityand inclusion in medical training.

In English, we tendto call people creatives if they have a certain job.

Like, designer or architect or artist.

I hate that term.

I think it's offensive and exclusionary.

Creativity doesn't belongto a certain group of people.

A lot of my work with physiciansand medical students is just reminding them that no matterwhat profession we choose, we can make meaning, find beauty in the hard stuff and create.

This is medical student Pablo Romano.

(Audio) Pablo Romano: My parentsimmigrated here from Mexico many years ago, and when I was in college, they passed away.

I was 18 when my dad diedand then 20 when my mom died.

LB: Not only has Pablo been talkingpublicly for the first time about being an orphan, but together, we started a livestorytelling series we're calling Talk Rx, and it's become a reallypopular place for his peers to show their most vulnerableand powerful thoughts and feelings.

(Audio) PR: I go to a school that cares so much about dataand research and numbers.

At the end of the day, what moves people is stories.

LB: Arifeen Rahmanis a second-year medical student.

And before she was born, her parents immigrated from Bangladeshto the United States.

She grew up in a really beautiful homein Northern California, very safe and stable, her parents are still together, she never went hungry, and she graduated from Harvard.

(Audio) Arifeen Rahman:I didn't feel like the stories I had were worth telling or that they mattered.

LB: Arifeen did have stories, though.

Recently, she gave a talkabout being maybe the only Bangladeshi American girl to win an essay contest from the Daughtersof the American Revolution — (Laughter) and then dress up for Halloweenas the Declaration of Independence.

And I love Arifeen's story so much, because to me it representsall that is good and bad and hard and exhausting about representing the new American dream.

(Audio) AR: The hardest thingwas coming up against that voice that was telling meno one wants to hear my stories, like, why invest the time in this thing that doesn't really mean anythingin the grand scale of life.

Maybe the biggest thing is, like, maybe it does.

LB: Life is so short.

For me, the only thing, really, that matters with my time here is feeling like I can connectwith other people and maybe make them feelslightly less alone.

And in my experience, that's what stories doabsolutely the best.

So, my student and a collaboratorin a lot of these endeavors is Candice Kim.

She's an MD-PhD studentin medical education.

She's written about #MeToo in medicine, navigating her queer identityin a conservative field and her mom's metastatic cancer diagnosis.

And recently, she started alsodoing some really interesting research about our work.

(Audio) Candace Kim:We've seen that students who participate in ourstorytelling opportunity show between a 36 and 51 percentdecrease in distress.

LB: If this was a mental health drug, it would be an absolute blockbuster.

Results seem to last up to a month.

It might be longer, a month is just when Candicestopped measuring.

So we don't even know.

Not only that, but 100 percentof our participants recommend these opportunities to a friend.

For me, though, the most important thingthat our work has done is create a culture of vulnerability in a place [where] there wasabsolutely none before.

I think what this does is that it allows doctors and other folks an opportunity to envisiona different kind of future for themselves and their patients.

This is Maite again.

(Audio) MVH: I want to be the doctorthat remembers when your birthday is without having to look at the chart.

And I want to be the doctor who knows what my patient's favorite color is and what TV shows they like to watch.

I want to be the doctorthat's remembered for listening to people and making sureI take care of all of them and not just treating their disease.

LB: Being human is a terminal condition.

We all have it, and we are all going to die.

Helping health care professionalscommunicate more meaningfully with each other, with their patients and with themselves is certainly not going to magically change everything that is wrongwith the contemporary health care system, and it's not going to live to the immenseburdens we place on our physicians, but it is absolutely key in making sure that our healersare healthy enough to heal the rest of us.

Communicating with each otherwith vulnerability, listening with compassion, is, I believe, the absolute bestmedicine that we have.

Thank you.


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