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The world shivers and quakes with 7.6 billion people. That’s 7.6 billion voices, bodies, and pulses yearning to be heard. That’s 7.6 billion stories that range in status from “told” to “unheard”, with more on the way. When I hear the word “storytelling” I am inclined to think about toddler bedtimes, picture books, and gentle soothing voices that lull innocent children to sleep. The idea that storytelling can be empowering and therapeutic admittedly never crossed my mind until I met Sruti Bandlamuri, founder of the non-profit The Outpatient Project with her friends Xiao Glahn and Zoe Somerville.
Talking to Sruti, exploring The Outpatient Project’s website, and reading posts on Witted Roots have shown me the invaluable, empowering nature of telling your own story. In a society where gender inequality is still a struggle and young girls aged 12-15 experience depression at rates triple to their male counterparts, there needs to be safe spaces for girls and women to openly share their stories. That’s exactly what Sruti and her friends set out to do, and along the way they gave a voice to the girls and women they spoke to.
To gain more insight into the empowering nature of storytelling as it pertains to young women, I decided to interview Sruti.
1. What does The Outpatient Project Mean to you?
To me, The Outpatient Project is a forum in which people from all walks of life can share their stories about health and how their lives revolve around their health without any judgement, restrictions, or guidelines. They can share as much or as little as they want, and through it they can attain a sense of empowerment by having that story out there. Part of why it’s so empowering is that it can be anonymous, and there’s really no rule other than just telling their story. Even if that story isn’t specifically about health, it’s still sharing a health story because everything affects us, right? We all have feelings, we all have emotions. The Outpatient Project is a place where we can see the importance of mental health; where we can share our mental stories and get support. So many people have shared their stories and afterwards told me they felt really liberated and empowered, especially after feeling voiceless for so long.
In addition, those who read the stories gain a better understanding of others and the ways a particular disease can manifest. It emphasizes that the same disease is different from one person to the next, just as how one person’s story is vastly different from all others.
2. What inspired you, Xiao, and Zoe to begin a non-profit specifically for women to tell their stories? What about storytelling do you think resonates with everyone you guys have spoken to?
A lot of girls and women feel voiceless. We were in high school at the time, and we kept talking about how girls needed a place and a community to talk about stuff that happens in their life without any judgement. We also knew so many girls who were dealing with depression and we wondered, “Why isn’t there a place where people can share their stories without any fear of judgement, but still understand depression looks so different in two different people with different lives?” We didn’t want it to be a basic Facebook group because we aimed to reach more than just those who were willing to talk. That’s why we decided on the interviews/blog format. Specifically, we got really inspired when I did a blog post for Young Minds Advocacy: I was interviewing my peers about happiness and they all gave such different answers about the same subject. We realized that each person is wholly unique and experiences the world differently.
So Xiao, Zoe, and I decided to gather stories and share them, in hopes that it would make at least a few people feel less lonely and voiceless.
Xiao has lived in many different places so she basically gathered stories by emailing and texting people from all over the country, including Texas and Canada.
Zoe has shared her own experiences with depression and she felt that girls needed to be heard and have a safe space because their voices are so underheard.
It was a feminist issue but also a mental health one that drove us. Ultimately, we didn’t limit it to mental health because we know health and life are inseparable. We can’t say, “This story has to be about mental health”, because physical and mental often have to do with each other, and life events strongly impact both.
3. What have you learned since founding TOP?
I’ve learned that everyone has a story, whether they believe it or not. I’ve also learned that you can learn something from anyone, and that it’s very important to just listen to other people. That’s probably one of the most empowering things for anyone, no matter how extroverted or introverted they are. We all just want to be understood, and maybe I won’t understand them, but if they share their story and tell others what they’ve been thinking or feeling or dealing with, no matter how mundane it seems to them, all of us can learn something from it.
4. How have you been affected by the experience?
I’ve definitely been affected by the experiences. At times I’ve been really upset because of the way society is or the way things are going for other people. Other times I’ve been really happy to hear that things are going well. It’s just a range of emotions, really.
It’s helped me understand what I want to do with my life, but it has also changed how I interact with people. I’ve been able to be more introspective and think about my interactions with others — how am I affecting some else’s life?
It’s definitely made me more empathetic and compassionate, and it’s inspired me to think more about basic interactions and how another person is feeling even if I don’t know them.
Through platforms like The Outpatient Project and Say it Forward, girls and women are slowly but surely sharing their stories. As Sruti mentioned and Dr. Pamele Rutledge explains, storytelling is empowering and liberating for the sharer and educational for the listener. We could all benefit from more stories to open our minds and accept the diverse, beautiful individual experiences that we go through.
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