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The importance of the storyteller’s identity in mental health narratives

Mental health stories are important – but so is the identity of the storyteller. Following a new study on mental health storytelling, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion consultant Julian Harrison shares why. 

Image: Julian Harrison

Julian Harrison

Every story is unique. Every storyteller matters.

However, aside from that fundamental lesson, it is equally important to look at the background and identity of everyone that contributes to the broader issue of mental health awareness through lived experience narratives.  

It is therefore not just what each story says, but who each storyteller is. 

The Narrative Experiences Online (NEON) study – which looks at whether reading or listening to others’ online stories of personal recovery can help people – has demonstrated the importance of recovery stories.  

Its focus on the centrality of the lived experience voice has shown – in the best way possible – not only the possibility of recovery, but the variety in how this is both sensed and achieved.  

“Some of the more telling statistics relate to equality and diversity, and specifically to health inequalities.” 

Health inequalities told through statistics 

Why would this be so? 

Well, if we take just a cursory look at mental health data, we can see that some of the more telling statistics relate to equality and diversity, and specifically to health inequalities. 

For example, Mental Health UK in June 2022 reported that 55% of transgender people have experienced depression during their lives.

Also in June, a leading organisation focusing specifically on men’s mental health, disclosed the fact that the biggest killer of under 24s in the UK is suicide and that 75% of suicide victims are male.1  

A November 2018 health report by Stonewall entitled ‘LGBT in Britain’ divulged the fact that ‘one in eight LGBT young people aged 18-24 stated that they had made an attempt to take their own life during the course of the previous year’.  

In the same report, Stonewall stated that 52% of all LGBT people said that they had experienced depression in the last twelve months2.

More recently, in July 2022, the Centre for Mental Health revealed that ‘four times as many Black people and twice as many Asian people are detained under the Mental Health Act as those from White communities’3.  

This is a long-standing trend which shows no apparent movement, and certainly no reversal.  

“Looking closely at health inequalities data also points us in the direction of intersectionality as a way of making sense of how people experience discrimination.”

Shocking but not surprising 

Sadly, none of these statistics are a surprise to anyone with even the smallest amount of involvement or interest in mental health.  

They’ve been with us for many years – trends that have become a permanent blight on our ability as a society to make any sort of difference when it comes to equality and diversity and its relationship to health. 

The importance of intersectionality  

Looking closely at health inequalities data also points us in the direction of intersectionality as a way of making sense of how people experience discrimination. 

If we consider only the facts that I’ve mentioned, you see the interrelationship of identities based not just on mental health, but on sex/gender, on sexual orientation, on age and on race.  

One could go much further by also considering religion or belief or other[4] and indeed further aspects of identity that, whilst sitting outside the legal confines, nevertheless are important considerations, such as social class, employment history or education. 

As an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) consultant, as well as someone with a lifetime’s experience of living with mental illness, the NEON study has provided me with an opportunity to raise equality issues in relation to mental health recovery, to interject, to promote the significance of including EDI as a further analytical tool and to seek, essentially, a more diverse voice. 

“[EDI] makes an organisation…more credible and accountable in the eyes of the public.”

EDI is fundamentally important 

Because, fundamentally, equality and diversity are important.  

Not only does an EDI approach demonstrate legal compliance and emphasise issues of fairness and social justice – it’s intrinsically the ‘right thing to do’ – it also focuses on some important characteristics that will serve well both the study and its practitioners, facilitators, adherents and participants.  

It makes an organisation, for example, more credible and accountable in the eyes of the public. Its inclusive manner helps the task of achieving community ‘buy-in’, increasing the chances of further participation and indeed of widening the diversity ‘net’.  

And, in relation to research, it enhances its efficacy and potency by including those people for whom the research area is most critical, those at the sharpest end of health inequalities. It is therefore much more likely to make a real difference ‘on the ground’. 

“A sense of connection between story and reader is, fundamentally, the purpose of any narrative. In relation to mental health recovery, that connection may also be an important aspect of the recovery journey itself.” 

An opportunity for tangible outcomes 

NEON has become an opportunity to broker some tangible outcomes in encouraging people whose voices are ‘seldom heard’ or ‘easy to ignore’ (but never ‘hard to reach’) to add to the growing repertoire of stories. 

By doing so, it also promotes awareness of the need for further contributions that combine mental health experience with community identity. 

Including seldom heard voices can also provide benefits to those people who engage with the content of the NEON Collection; for example, if they have experienced discrimination due to being in a section of the population which is marginalised. 

A sense of connection between story and reader is, fundamentally, the purpose of any narrative.  

In relation to mental health recovery, however, that connection may also be an important aspect of the recovery journey itself. 

See NEON study findings here and sign up to the McPin newsletter to stay up to date with our work here 


Julian Harrison has worked in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion consultant for over 15 years and was a Lived Experience Advisory Panel member on the NEON study. 

McPin has been involved with the NEON study since the beginning, developing their involvement strategy and running the Live Experience Advisory Panel.  


[1] Humen, June 2022

[2] LGBT in Britain – Health (stonewall.org.uk)

[3] Centre for Mental Health, Poverty and Mental Health Briefing, July 2022

[4]Protected characteristics | Equality and Human Rights Commission (equalityhumanrights.com)

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