It's Time To Talk

"I think being witnessed being listened to, and having a non-judgemental space helps you to recognise that you're a fucking normal person"

Stories are powerful things. A well-woven plot with a crafty narrator can sway the minds of an audience, persuade them to suspend their disbelief or throw the weight of their opinion behind a bold cause. And whilst facts may be tethered to solid ground, any author, campaigner or advertising executive worth their salt will tell you that a decent story will always carry the day. For a subject as important and as invisible as mental health, the power of stories to communicate the experiences of those affected becomes imperative. In Edinburgh, an initiative is hoping to harness the power of telling tales to help people regain ownership of their own narratives.

Real Talk is a mental health storytelling organisation that aims to get people talking openly about their experiences with mental ill health. Speaking to Real Talk’s founder, 23-year old Lily Asch, in a busy bar off South Bridge, is a masterclass in persuasion. Combining the charm of a storyteller with the conciseness of an entrepreneur who’s practiced her elevator pitch, she’s a very helpful interviewee. 

“At our core, we’re about promoting authenticity, promoting honesty around experiences of mental ill health, and we’re about using the tools of storytelling to foster conversations and foster connections, to promote wellbeing,” says Asch.

At Real Talk’s events, participants are taught the craft of storytelling by a professional storyteller who helps them begin to talk about their experiences of mental ill health within the structure of a narrative. Asch says that, “The workshops are all about storycrafting, about the different techniques that storytelling brings to effectively translate our experiences, to help people contextualise and give them a framework to speak around.

I think being witnessed, being listened to, and having a non-judgemental space helps you to recognise that you’re a fucking normal person, we all have brains, we all have mental health and so to struggle – it doesn’t make you alone, it doesn’t make you abnormal, it doesn’t make you wrong. Sharing those stories, it helps other people connect to your humanity and soul.”

The events culminate, says Asch, in a performance in front of an audience. The audience are invited to “…bring their ears and their compassion. They get the chance to talk about how the stories impacted them and there’s a Q&A element between the participants and the audience, so it’s dynamic.”

Asch’s own experiences with mental ill health – which saw her living in a psychiatric ward at the age of 14 – were what made her want to help others. Giving a TEDx talk at university about her experiences led to an exploration of the power of storytelling around mental health. “The process personally for me was very cathartic. More than that, once I opened up about my experiences by sharing my story, I found that almost immediately people came to me with their own stories, whether it was about them or their mum or their best friend... we’ve all known at least one person who’s experienced problems with mental ill health and that planted a seed.”

Despite the recognition that Real Talk has received for its work in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the demands of running the project have been tough. “To be present in that space and to be actively listening to people... there’s a lot of self-care that needs to happen,” says Asch. Furthermore, she says that life in the start-up scene, although dynamic, can be rough. “The entrepreneurial lifestyle is very uncertain and there are days when you feel like you’ve done the best thing you’ve ever done and there are days when you ask ‘What the fuck am I doing’ – so I have to be mindful of my own mental health and negotiate that.”

In Scotland, the suicide rate is three times higher for men than women – and male mental health is a particular interest, she says. “We find we have about a 5-1 ratio of women coming forward to speak versus men and I do wonder - should I run a male-centric event?” Real Talk’s emphasis on catharsis and performance is about empowering people to navigate their mental health, but Asch doesn’t present it as a form of therapy. Whilst she’s training as a counsellor, she’s been working on ways to scale up Real Talk – including potential collaborations with service providers such as NHS Scotland, who have made mental healthcare a priority in recent years – and with organisations like charities and corporates.

For a journalist – a role which is entirely occupied with using stories to make sense of the world – this is an easy sell. Having mastered the story of her mental health, Asch has moved on to helping others tell their own tales. At the end of our interview, I asked Asch what it is about storytelling which makes it such a good tool for dealing with mental ill health.

“Stories are what drive humanity,” she says. “Everything we believe about ourselves, about each other - whether it’s religion, whether its governmental systems, politics - there’s stories that we tell ourselves and choose to believe.

Whether we’re telling it or other people are telling us, there’s a lot of power in being able to own what you’ve been through.”

For professional advice on mental health in young people, if you are concerned about someone or yourself, contact Papyrus on 0800 068 4141 or text 07786 209 697 or email . In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123.