Personal Narratives Offer Insight into Mental Health Recovery for Diverse Communities

An in-depth analysis of personal narratives of mental health recovery aims to improve treatment for marginalized communities.

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In a recent study, researchers highlighted the importance of understanding the lived experience of mental health recovery for individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. The Australian-based research, led by E. Levy-Fenner from Middlesex University, aimed to provide mental health professionals with deeper insight into these personal narratives to ultimately lead to improved mental health treatment for people within these communities.

“First-person lived experience narratives offer deep insight into understanding the ways in which individuals of marginalized communities conceptualize and embody recovery,” they write. “These findings further the literature and understanding on how to better serve the needs of people with mental health challenges from CALD communities through informed knowledge of what may be helpful to, and meaningful in, individuals’ recoveries.”

The current research aimed to understand the lived experiences of people from CALD communities that had struggled with and recovered from mental health issues. The study analyzed data from a 2014 community engagement project in Melbourne, Australia, called “Finding Our Way,” in which participants from CALD backgrounds created short films about their personal recovery narratives.

These stories of people living with emotional and mental health issues were created during a four-day workshop led by filmmakers, practitioners, and researchers in 2014.

During this project, people from CALD backgrounds were invited to participate in a four-day workshop around digital storytelling. After the workshops, the participants (with the help of experts) created short films about their personal recovery narratives. The researchers identified common themes across nine of these films, which are still publicly available.

By examining these first-person narratives of mental health recovery, the authors identified five key dimensions in mental health recovery for these communities:

  1. Newfound opportunities and care
  2. Family as key motivators and facilitators
  3. Coping and generativity
  4. Cultivating self-understanding and resilience
  5. Empowerment through social engagement

The first theme, “newfound opportunities and care,” was evident in two films, where participants expressed gratitude for the accommodations and sense of belonging provided by Australians and the country itself. In two other films, the family emerged as the primary motivator and facilitator of recovery, with one participant referring to their family as the “anchor” of their experience, while the other stated that “family is key to wellness.”

Coping and generativity were common themes, with most participants highlighting the importance of external structures and support, such as religious institutions or technology, in their recovery. Four participants emphasized the role of creative endeavors, like origami and ceramics, in grounding their experiences and facilitating recovery.

All nine films highlighted the significance of cultivating self-understanding and resilience, particularly for those who arrived as refugees and faced culture shock. Overcoming adversity and adjusting to a new culture were seen as vital aspects of their recovery. For some, culture shock necessitated a realignment towards themselves and their new home. One participant described this realignment as follows:

“It was cultural shock when I arrived in Australia. I had to retrain my thinking about everything. Everything my culture had expected of me was accomplished. Was born, went through education, found a job, got married, have had children. But that was the culture of the land that I came from. I needed to move in a science of mind. Learning how to live the life of my eventual new homeland.”

Most of the participants discussed the adversity faced by outsiders both in terms of practical concerns such as securing housing and other basic needs as well as in learning the unwritten rules of their new homeland’s culture. Some participants found meaning and a stronger sense of self in overcoming these obstacles.

The last theme identified by the authors, “empowerment through social engagement,” was present in one participant’s film. This participant found profound meaning in connecting to the people around her by giving out origami fish she had made, acting as a “laughter leader” to promote the well-being of those around her, and cooking for community events. For this participant, sharing her skills with her community was central to her recovery.

This research underscores the value of understanding the lived experiences of mental health recovery in CALD communities, offering valuable insights for mental health professionals seeking to improve treatment outcomes for these populations.

The authors acknowledge several limitations to the current work. First, the small sample size makes generalizability tenuous at best. Second, the sampling method used in the initial project likely attracted participants that had strong feelings about mental health recovery. This likely means the full spectrum of recovery experiences was not captured in the present work. Last, these short films represent a brief moment in the participant’s recovery journey. Their current relationship with recovery may be far different than the one presented in their short films.

One additional limitation of the present work was the involvement of professionals in helping the participants craft their recovery narrative short films. It is possible that the narratives in these films were influenced by the storytelling workshop and the professionals who helped to create them. The authors conclude:

“The findings of the current study contribute to the existing, albeit limited, body of research on how people from communities of difference, including CALD, immigrant, refugee, or ethnic minority, experience mental health recovery in diverse social, geographic, and cultural contexts. The themes arising from the self-authored narratives of the participants in this study shed light on the unique and yet not uncommon mental health recovery experiences of individuals of CALD backgrounds.”

Past research has shown that refugees and immigrants experience increased medical coercion, often under threat of deportation and detention. One study has explored how the psy-disciplines force neoliberal narratives onto communities using concepts like “trauma” and “resilience.” One way of mitigating these problems may be by integrating culture into mental healthcare.

Research has shown that socio-cultural factors are related to mental health recovery. Peer support can effectively facilitate recovery, as can meaningful participation within one’s community.

 

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Levy-Fenner, E., Colucci, E., & McDonough, S. (2022). Lived experiences of mental health recovery in persons of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds within the Australian context. Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Mental Health. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40737-022-00319-y (Link)

1 COMMENT

  1. I wholly agree with the end of this article, and would wish that all researchers be trained in concepts of epistemic injustice. It goes beyond “cultural competence” into full-blown manipulation, gaslighting, and abuse.

    We can look at, for example, the millions of women (and men) who’ve had sexual abuse downplayed by dominant cultural narratives in both mainstream culture and medical opinions.

    This does mean we should doubt lived experience stories. Far from it. It does mean that step one, before anything, is checking mental health conceptualization for bias and oppression, including the thousands of stories (many documented here on MIA) of injustice and abuse along those axes.

    … “One additional limitation of the present work was the involvement of professionals in helping the participants craft their recovery narrative short films. It is possible that the narratives in these films were influenced by the storytelling workshop and the professionals who helped to create them. … One study has explored how the psy-disciplines force neoliberal narratives onto communities using concepts like “trauma” and “resilience.” One way of mitigating these problems may be by integrating culture into mental healthcare.”

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