Exploring digital storytelling as a coping mechanism

Assisting mental health for assimilation from a technical communication standpoint 

“The path that lies hidden beyond us is often the part that is best…
So rest, relax, grow stronger.” 

Digital storytelling is referred to as a visual methodology specifically designed to improve community development and health research, according to the authors McDonough and Colucci (2019). This type of methodology in technical communication allows for the documentation of personal stories that posit insight into what it means to struggle with mental health illness as a person of refugee and immigrant background. McDonough and Colucci’s article highlights key cultural differences in coping mechanisms, as well as the overall stigmas that are associated with acknowledging mental health illness and awareness. 

Readjusting in a new environment is a difficult process, therefore, having a safe space to seek support and document one’s own experience with mental health barriers is important. Digital storytelling also allows individuals to express their battles with mental health illnesses comfortably in their own languages and takes away the stressors that are associated with translation into an unfamiliar language. Language barriers have the power to take away from the originality and importance of a digital story because meaningscan get lost in translation. As technical communicators, our role in digital storytelling must include assisting patrons with getting their messages across in a way that does not take away from their experiences, but rather enhances them and makes them accessible to anyone experiencing something similar. 

This concept of digital storytelling for people of refugee and immigrant backgrounds provides a therapeutic outlet of sharing information with others regarding what it actually means to struggle with mental illness and deteriorating mental health for individuals seeking a better life through assimilation. Providing a first person encounter with psychological struggles that others are facing in similar situations can be interpreted as a form of outreach. This outreach can continue to be incorporated into programs that specifically target individuals needing support through their adjustment period. Technical communicators play a vital role in helping these individuals tell their stories the way they should be told, not the way they want to be viewed by the public. 

There are multiple core themes that technical communication as a whole should address, according to the authors. These core themes include unraveling the emotions associated with displacement, and replacing these feelings with a sense of belonging; reminiscing rather than ruminating on events that have wreaked distress upon these individuals; staying intertwined and connected with important relationships; regaining a sense of confidence and overall well-being; actually and wholeheartedly taking care of one’s self; and gaining an apt for creative or spiritual practices that act as coping mechanisms to continue practicing and achieving emotional and physical well-being.

Visualization of these internal battles with mental illness enables and allows a conversation to take place that has been stigmatized and hidden internally for so long. It is difficult to disclose personal and traumatic information to others, even if they have experienced something similar because it is uncomfortable to expose vulnerability. The negative impacts must also be considered when sharing these types of experiences with the world, because stigmatization of mental illness is an issue that has been experienced in communication and health for so very long. 

The presence of traumatic stories could trigger distress in individuals who are still coping with their own experiences, or it could invite undue comments that increase the presence of stigmas and discredit the stories that have been waiting to be shared. Visualization of stories through digital storytelling is equally important as telling the story itself. The way these stories are disseminated impacts how they are received and perceived by those who are struggling and advocating alike. Digital storytelling also provides an opportunity to shed light on existing systemic inequalities that deteriorate mental well-being for people of refugee and immigrant background. For example, a digital storytelling experience that highlights how a person seeking shelter in a different country due to political injustices in their homeland can show others who have experienced similar turmoil that it is normal and healthy to speak about their trauma, and most importantly that their feelings are valid. This type of information sharing and community engagement provides a contribution to the downfall of the existing barriers that control mental well-being and overall wellness for asylum seeking individuals from refugee and immigrant backgrounds. The representation of marginalized populations is extremely important and valuable to consider when planning and designing this type of methodological intervention. 

Presentation and dissemination fall into the lap of technical communicators who are the most capable of encapsulating every aspect of someone’s story and how they would like to portray themselves alongside their struggles. To disseminate and tell stories as accurately and effectively as possible without losing touch with the author’s perspective is the main focus of this style of communication. After all, their perspective is the story. With the use of different visuals (not merely the presence of images) such as poems, videos, graphics, and more, technical communicators can bring to life the different encounters and accounts that individuals experience when struggling with mental health illness. This article highlights the struggles that are associated with starting a new life far away from one’s homeland. Digital storytelling can act as a form of recovery for those looking to improve the status of their mental health, as well as advocate for others who are also seeking solace. 


People of immigrant and refugee background sharing experiences of mental health recovery: reflections and recommendations on using digital storytelling, by Susan McDonough & Erminia Colucci

Viewpoint Written by Kimberly N Uzzel, Texas State University

Edited by Jeranda Dennis, Texas State University

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