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The healing power of storytelling

Dr Siobhan Campbell’s Expressive Writing and Telling (EWT) group storytelling method supports trauma survivors to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences and heal through creative writing.

“EWT is a framework to run creative writing-based workshops that encourage people to reflect on and talk about their traumas without feeling judged”, Dr Campbell explains. “It enables people – including those once on different sides of conflict – to recognise each other’s humanity and overcome prejudices.”

A celebrated Irish poet and critic outside of her research career, Campbell collaborated with humanitarian organisations and Kingston University London’s Dr Meg Jensen to develop EWT after witnessing how creative writing supported communities in Northern Ireland to reconcile after The Troubles.

The blank page is a great leveller

“My experience in Belfast showed me the power of storytelling to allow people to open up and be vulnerable with people they once considered enemies,” Campbell recalls. “Creative writing can be an incredible leveller as we all face the blank page together!.”

Campbell and Jensen’s The Expressive Life-Writing Handbook (2017) sets out a practical framework for people working with trauma survivors. It has empowered social workers in Iraq to deliver workshops for sexual violence survivors and helped humanitarians support Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

While the coronavirus pandemic brought face-to-face workshops to an abrupt halt, Campbell says the move online yielded unexpected results. “The switch enabled groups in Lebanon to have continued contact, reducing their sense of isolation. It also created a space to discuss fears, prejudices and the vaccine.”

Helping healthcare workers through a traumatic time

Back in the UK, Campbell also delivered an award-winning EWT programme for healthcare workers from the NHS North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, using creative writing as an outlet to support their wellbeing during the pandemic. Still, she is quick to assert that EWT’s success hinges on collaboration with the communities it supports.

“It’s heartening to see how our collaborators keep challenging and readapting it for their specific needs. For example, in Lebanon, early participants are now running groups tackling issues such as gender-based violence in communities social workers have previously struggled to access. Meanwhile, the youth programme we developed for the children of our women’s group is leading more of them to sign up for school."

Campbell and OU colleagues have also explored the psychological impact of stories in this free OpenLearn course. “There’s just something about creativity that embeds the idea of potential - it's humbling”, she reflects.