Telling the truth about mental illness: the role of narrative

Christian Perring

in Trauma, Truth and Reconciliation

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2006 | ISBN: 9780198569435
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754449 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Telling the truth about mental illness: the role of narrative

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My aim in this chapter is to explore how a narrative approach might provide a useful alternative tool for understanding how truth-telling can help people fight both political oppression and stigmatizing ways of representing themselves. I will draw attention to some ways in which telling one's story is not simply a matter of laying out the facts but rather involves choosing a narrative to describe one's life. There are many aspects to this contrast, and I will focus on cases where the language and categories we use to describe ourselves are indeterminate or in flux. I will not attempt to provide a precise definition of narrative (a task that I take to be extremely difficult if not impossible) and my claims do not require a precise definition. We are familiar with paradigm cases of people telling the story of their lives, or portions of their lives, and these stories generally involve explaining what happened to them, who they interacted with, what they did, how they felt, and what they thought. These narratives are often structured chronologically and aim to make clear why events unfolded as they did and why the narrator's life turned out as it did. Thus a central aim for most narratives is to provide understanding of a life, so that it makes sense. This notion of ‘making sense of a life’ may be hard to analyze, but I trust that it at least has some strong intuitive appeal. One aspect of this work that I take to be interesting and important is that it suggests how the concept of narrative can show some links between personal autonomy and social liberation. I will be particularly interested in cases where telling the truth about oneself is an act that contributes to political self-liberation.

Telling one's story may be therapeutic not just as a way of revealing previously hidden truths, but also as a way of fighting prejudices and correcting mistaken conceptions of what kind of person one is. Furthermore, telling one's story may sometimes be a way of creating an identity for oneself. A central question is to what extent individuals or groups of oppressed people have the power to counter or neutralize stigmatizing mainstream narratives, demeaning names, and distorted images. I will use the case of transsexuals as an example and I will conclude with a discussion of the ways in which people with mental illnesses have tried to develop stories and language with which to describe their lives that fight demeaning stereotypes.

Chapter.  8794 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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