"The Truth About Stories Is, That’s All We Are": Native Narrative Determinants on Mental Health
“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” (King 2)
Thomas King begins all of his lectures with this line, and he is right, in more ways than one. King challenges the traditional North American colonial narrative, using the stories from his lectures as critical lenses to examine underlying issues and storytelling itself. Understanding this narrative methodology is important to King for two main reasons. One, so that we as an audience begin to question the traditional North American colonial narrative of the “Indian,” (King 45) and two, that we begin to tell a new, more truthful narrative moving forward. King addresses many important issues by telling stories, including the impact of the “Indian” (45) and transgenerational trauma on the individual and collective identities of Native people. In confronting this issue, King’s stories also shed light on the impact of narratives on the mental health of Native people. “The truth about stories is that’s all we are” (King 2) because the stories we tell ourselves determine who we are emotionally and psychologically, thereby impacting the state of our mental health.
“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (King 2) because the stories we tell ourselves determine not only our identity, but the health of that identity. Mental health is especially impacted by stories and narratives that we as individuals tell ourselves, and that society dictates to us. The stories we tell ourselves, or that we perceived to be true, can impact our emotional and psychological well-being in several ways. For Native people, the traditional colonial narrative of the “Indian” has resulted in repeated trauma that transcends generations. Whether it be expulsion of Native people from their ancestral lands, assimilation practices in Residential Schools, or the “cultural ritualization” (King 45) of
the North American “Indian”, Native people have been and continue to be, transformed and
traumatized by the stories of these events and society’s continued repetition of cultural lies. (King 45) This is because these stories and cultural lies define how individual Natives see themselves, their communities and their place within society. In many cases these traumas transform into a negative narrative of self-image, manifesting themselves in forms of mental illness including; “post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse disorder and major depression.” (Research Series, 2003)
In Canada, suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading cause of death amongst First Nations youth and adults. (Health Canada) There are many factors that contribute to our mental health, both externally and internally. External factors such as; socio-economic status, education level, and interpersonal relationships with friends and family, are major contributors to mental illness, many of which are also riddled with negative narratives for Native people. Internally, stories also contribute greatly to non-biological causes of mental illness, shaping individual perceptions of identity and self-worth. Thomas King writes about his good friend and colleague Louis Owens committing suicide in an airport parking garage, and the role narrative played in his death. (92) King shares one of the stories from Owens’ memoir I Hear the Train, and ends by pondering, “maybe this was the story Louis told
himself as he sat in that airport garage… Whichever one it was, for that instant Louis must have believed it.” (95) King illustrates that the stories one tells oneself can have tragic consequences, especially when those stories are born out of; racism, trauma, and isolation, as so many Natives experiences are. These narratives can leave individuals feeling marginalized, isolated, unwanted, and insignificant, thereby contributing to poor mental health and perpetuating the vicious cycle of negative narrative in the future.
Although the correlation between negative narratives and mental illness is undeniable amongst Native populations, what we know about the power of stories can also have positive repercussions for living with and overcoming mental illness. The Government of Canada acknowledges that for Native people, youth in particular, “suicide [and poor mental health] is embedded in larger structural problems associated with colonization” (Preventing Suicide 40) and that these structural problems have been “internalized [by Native people] resulting in ‘dysfunctional dynamics at many interpersonal levels.” (Preventing Suicide 38) For this reason, there is a need to focus on individual holistic health in the form of cultural continuity, to shape healthy, positive youth identity, self-esteem, hope and being invested in
living.” (Preventing Suicide 40) This will involve reconciling past traumas, and ensuring the narrative of Native people is true to the Native experience, rather than the colonial narrative of the Native experience. “Connection to the emotional self, the land and spirit increases the valuing of life [and restores] positive reasons for living.” (Preventing Suicide 40) By reconnecting Native people with their true emotional and cultural identity, perhaps then the positive power of stories can take the place of negative, damaging narratives, thus improving mental health on the whole.
“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” (King 2) A study conducted by the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses found,
“stories can have transformative potential, because once heard and heeded, the person can never go back to exactly how they were before.” (McAllister 304)
King echoes this sentiment at the end of each of his lectures with the same two lines,
“But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.” (29)
Unfortunately for many Native people, the narratives perpetuated by colonial institutions have had very damaging transformative powers. These narratives born out of past and continued trauma, have had very destructive impacts on the identity and mental health of many Native people. Because people cannot revert back to a state prior to hearing a story, should these stories undermine the individual’s identity and self-worth, the individual is left with yet another traumatic narrative to examine all future stories. Thus stories determine not only an individual’s current and future perceptions of a situation, but also their mental health on the whole.
"Acting on What We Know: Preventing Youth Suicide in First Nations." First Nations and Inuit
Health. Health Canada, 2010. Web.
"Mental Health and Wellness." First Nations and Inuit Health. Health Canada, 2015. Web.
King, Thomas. The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2005. Print.
Mcallister, Margaret. "Connecting Narrative with Mental Health Learning through Discussion
and Analysis of Selected Contemporary Films." International Journal of Mental Health
Nursing 24.4 (2015): 304-13. Web.