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Sharing evidence and planning change through storytelling

Bernadette Shields is the Senior Aboriginal Health Promotion Co-ordinator for the Chronic Diseases Program in the Northern Territory Department of Health and Families. In 2007, she was awarded a Department of Health and Ageing, National Excellence Award for her ‘Individual Contribution to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health’.

Bernadette talks about using a storyboard and storytelling to share health research evidence.

In our health promotion program we use Aboriginal ways, both visual and storytelling, to share information that comes from research about preventable chronic diseases. I usually start a session by talking about how we hear some old stories, but also some new stories now that we didn’t know before, as to why some of us are getting sick. I say that it’s a good story, because it has come out of research evidence and can help us make positive changes that can keep our families, communities and culture strong. I compare the old days – when physical activity was part of everyday life, when families were moving around with the seasons – with now, when we don’t move around much and sometimes eat unhealthy foods.

We use a storyboard with felt symbols because it’s visual and interactive, and it’s portable. We can pick this storyboard up and go and sit with family groups wherever they feel comfortable. That could be sitting under the tree, or down at the beach - wherever they choose.  So it’s out of a building, and we’re not reliant on technology. We used this method to share information about drinking and to plan community interventions in the NT Living with Alcohol Program, so we know it works well.

When we’re doing the chronic diseases storytelling, we’re telling stories about family members who have kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, rheumatic fever or asthma. We share the stories gently and respectfully because they are personal stories that involve grief and loss for most Aboriginal families. We find that as we tell the stories, people will start saying, ‘Yeah, this is what’s happening in our family’. I will also share my family’s stories - when I talk about losing the young man through heart disease, that’s my nephew. We also talk about the good news, that now we have interventions in place so family members can stay with us longer, and if you go for your health checks they can pick up on these things early.

The felt pieces on the storyboard show family groups sitting around. Different colours and shapes show diseases, grog, smokes, gunja … For example, we tell a story about a man who goes for adult men’s screening in his community, he finds out that he has high blood pressure and maybe one of the reasons is because of his smoking. So I talk about how he and his wife get the support to put changes in place and stop smoking and it’s better for the children too. We have a story about a little one who is born small and then in and out of hospital with infections as they grow up. When they get older they have to leave their country, leave their community and family, because their kidneys are failing and they need to go on dialysis. We move the symbols around on the storyboard and explore some of those reasons and lifestyle factors. There are other stories too. We build up a community picture.

At the end of the storytelling I talk about how we can turn the research that has been done into action, so that people can use the information to put their own changes in place. We hand the storyboard over to them to shift the symbols and build a picture of what’s happening for them.  People talk in their own language and then share with me in English - what changes they have made on the storyboard and why.  We talk about what changes they would like to see put in place, so that their children needn’t grow up with the chronic conditions that we are living with today.

We all relate to storytelling. I know it’s my way of retaining information - when it’s delivered to me in a storytelling way and using examples I can relate to, and in a supportive environment -  rather than if it’s a lecture or if I’m given the information on a bit of paper. The main messages in the stories are that we can live with chronic conditions if we take our medication everyday, have regular health checks, keep caring for ourselves and our families, and keep our culture strong and healthy.

From Researching Indigenous Health: A Practical Guide for Researchers, Alison Laycock with Diane Walker, Nea Harrison & Jenny Brands 2011, The Lowitja Institute, Melbourne, chapter 10, p. 252.

Created: 03 May 2012 - Updated: 16 August 2012