"People were completely misunderstanding the way I was communicating and I think it just, not that I got a little bit lost, but just things weren’t heard and especially when you go in to a therapy session and you have people who already have ideas about who you are because you have an eating disorder, it cuts you off, you stop. [. . .] I had one therapist who refused to believe that I wasn’t abused. She said, “until you can admit it, you are never going to get better”. She would give me books about not remembering being abused and I was like “But I wasn’t fucking abused”" Kate*

Kate’s experience of ‘people who already have ideas about who you are because you have an eating disorder’ highlights how, for many who experience mental health difficulties, existing narratives in mental health can constrict, if not limit, their ability to make sense of, and recover from their experiences. This brief paper explores the importance of narrative and meaning in mental health and proposes that, in endorsing and perpetuating dominant cultural narratives, school-based mental health programmes and interventions risk foreclosing opportunities for understanding and self-discovery.

Mental health difficulties foster a sundering of self and story. To ‘lose the plot’, as students who have experienced mental health crises sometimes describe it, is to lose that structure by which experiences can be organised into meaningful wholes. It is to lose the story of who we are and the future we thought our past was leading up to. Mental health crises are, to misappropriate the words of Cora Diamond, “the experience of the mind’s not being able to encompass something which it encounters”. It is in these times of crisis, when our basic assumptions of self are shaken and ruptured, that we are forced to search for meaning. Narrative, according to Donald Polkinghorne, is the primary form by which human experience is made meaningful.

Narratives are patterns of meaning that transverse and tie together personal stories. They are the templates, or ‘cognitive scheme(s)’, we turn to when constructing and telling our stories. Just as we internalise language and stories from our culture, we internalise “the shape of the telling”, as Arthur Frank describes it, too. Nikolas Rose, drawing on the work of Foucault, describes the development of a ‘psychological complex’, or narrative, in the Western World over the latter half of the 20th century. This complex, deeply rooted in assumptions about the separation of mind from body and the individual from social, has become the socially endorsed narrative structure available for individuals to make sense of their mental health experiences. Schools have become key environments in which culture conveys this narrative structure, or way of making sense of experiences, to young people. We do implicitly in the “restitution stories” we tell, or more explicitly in teaching mental health literacy to our students. While the language of mental illness may support some students in making sense of their experiences, for others it not only denies them a more suitable narrative but forecloses opportunity for self-discovery and understanding. 

"These kind of things you come up against where they [professionals] already have a type of language and a way of communicating that they give to you, for you to understand yourself through, but it’s…, they are giving it to you. It’s not your own kind of subjective ‘this is how I experience things’. It’s not and it doesn’t work." Kate

Education, as Bourdieu and others describe, plays an important role in the transmission of cultural values and norms. This includes the transmission of cultural norms and narratives of distress, or a language “for you to understanding yourself through” as Kate put it. While Davidson suggests that “it is much easier to call experiential suffering and its results ‘illness’ and treat them as such”, this cultural grand narrative “doesn’t work” (Kate) for everybody. This paper, and the stories of students like Kate, invites us to consider what it would be like to step beyond the dominant (and convenient) cultural narrative of distress and instead offer our students a “hospitality of narratives”, to borrow a phrase from the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney, by which they might explore and organise their experiences into meaningful wholes.

*’Kate’ is a pseudonym chosen by this student who was interviewed as part of a study of the nature and meaning of mental health difficulties for students in higher education (Farrell, 2017)


The Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PESGB) Annual Conference took place in New College Oxford from Friday 25 to Sunday 27 March 2022. https://www.philosophy-of-education.org