Skilled digital storyteller helps people tell their own stories
Mar 7, 2022, By: Laura Eggertson
Chantalle Clarkin was interviewing pregnant and parenting youth when the genesis of her current career as a nurse researcher in arts-based health care was born.
It was 2015, and reality television shows about teenage moms were in vogue.
Clarkin, then working as a qualitative researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), was also conducting doctoral research on the perinatal health education experiences of the young women, who were living in a temporary maternity shelter.
The damaging cultural portrayals of pregnant teens on television were negatively affecting the health care the young women in Ottawa received, she learned.
“They were hesitating to access health-care services because they felt judged,” Clarkin says.
But video was also an influential source of information for these young women — particularly video created with and for youth. To connect with them meaningfully, she realized she needed to learn how to make films.
Six years later, Clarkin, who completed her PhD, is a filmmaker and a project scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. She’s a skilled digital storyteller who is helping young people tell their own stories, while documenting the impact of video and other arts-based media on health.
Clarkin and her team are creating an app, called Your Storyline, to help people record and reflect on their health experiences. She hopes the app will give people a way to humanize their patient records, by recording short films to let health-care providers know what’s important to them.
People could also create videos to document their health journeys or to describe their health histories at times when they are not in crisis.
Although Clarkin says much of her career has come about through “accidental stumbles,” her accomplishments in this novel health-care field have earned her recognition.
In 2020, her creative marriage of nursing, filmmaking, and research landed her the Nurse Innovator Award from the Registered Nurses’ Foundation of Ontario, along with a $30,000 grant.
“I never had aspirations of being a filmmaker,” she says with a laugh. “I never wanted to be the next (Martin) Scorsese. It was really a means to do work that felt intellectually honest.”
Clarkin is deeply committed to the role storytelling can play in health care.
She learned storytelling’s power as a pediatric surgical nurse at CHEO, where she worked for six years after graduating with a diploma in nursing from Heritage College in Gatineau, Que.
The surgical environment was “high-paced and incredibly hierarchical,” Clarkin says, so she went back to school part-time to earn her bachelor of science in nursing degree from the University of Ottawa. The combination of full-time work and studying had left her feeling burned out.
Then she met a professor who was also a qualitative researcher. The professor recommended that Clarkin cultivate curiosity in her bedside practice, to build stronger connections with her patients and their families.
This shift in perspective involved reframing her questions. Instead of asking patients to measure pain solely on a scale from 1 to 10, for example, she invited them to share stories and describe experiences in greater depth.
Patients gave her answers like “it feels like being stung by angry hornets over and over” — answers that increased her empathy and understanding.
“I realized how much more I could get as a nurse, and how much more satisfying it was to my patients, when I started investing in … hearing more about their story,” Clarkin says.
Making that human connection with her patients also helped mitigate Clarkin’s burnout.
“It brought me back to the roots of why I became a nurse in the first place,” she says.
‘It was really a means to do work that felt intellectually honest.’
Clarkin also fell in love with research when she took her bachelor’s degree. She realized that not only could she understand academic writing, but she also had a perspective to contribute.
Following her bachelor’s degree with her master’s also challenged Clarkin’s preconceptions about the value of academic nursing and nurse researchers.
Before becoming a researcher, Clarkin and some of her clinical colleagues called academic nurses and administrators “clipboards,” who were out of touch with clinical nursing.
Then Clarkin discovered it was not only exciting but fulfilling to investigate issues and collect data — and also contribute to change. She transitioned to a research career at CHEO, while pursuing her doctorate.
The research project with homeless teens brought Clarkin back to the importance of storytelling and the influence of film. So in 2017, she took a leave from her doctorate to study non-fiction media and documentary filmmaking at Seneca College’s Documentary Filmmaking Institute in Toronto.
In another unexpected twist to her own story, her debut documentary short film focused on her experience in learning and performing burlesque dancing. Her documentary, Hips Straight, Eyes Open, is a story about body image and representation.
Through this experience, Clarkin realized how uncommon it is to see large bodies enjoying movement and dance in film — let alone celebrating those bodies by commanding a stage and audience.
Reconnecting with her body through burlesque was “a transformative experience,” Clarkin says. “I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so confident and embodied.”
Making the documentary reinforced Clarkin’s desire to use film in health care. She returned to Ottawa and worked with young mothers in a digital storytelling project that focused on their early life, trauma, and mental health challenges.
That project, and other digital storytelling consultancy jobs, led in 2019 to a post-doctoral fellowship at CAMH in developmental trauma and resilience. It also landed Clarkin a position as associate director at the HeArt Lab — a lab specializing in health equity, art, research, and technology, founded by Dr. Allison Crawford.
Both positions enabled Clarkin to use film and other media in mental health. She’s particularly focused on issues of early childhood adversity and how it affects health, and on developing trauma-informed ways to make space in health care so young people can tell those stories.
Now, as a project scientist, Clarkin is collaborating with the Canadian Suicide Prevention Service as well as pursuing her digital storytelling passion through HeArt Lab. Working with Crawford, she’s just finished For Those Who Come Next, a documentary about the experiences of youth advocates from the child welfare system.
Despite COVID’s challenges, and the difficult issues she works on, Clarkin has found solace in painting, watching films, cooking with her husband, Jorge, and walking her chihuahuas, Pippa and Willis.
Her drive to develop the Your Storyline app intensified during the pandemic when her older sister, Christianne, experienced a devastating spinal cord injury.
“She ended up at a rehabilitation centre without feeling as though anyone actually understood what her own personal goals were, and what her life realities were,” Clarkin says. “There were so many barriers to communicating (with health-care providers), especially during the pandemic.”
If Clarkin’s sister had access to the Your Storyline app to introduce herself to her health-care team, she could have included it in her electronic record, to “put the person into the patient,” Clarkin says. Christianne could also have used the app to document and reflect on her recovery journey.
She hopes a protype of Your Storyline will be ready for nurses, other health-care providers, and patients to test by spring of 2022.
Helping her sister navigate the health-care system has crystallized Clarkin’s resolve to do whatever she can to prioritize patients’ voices — including using arts and technology to tell their stories.
Some in medicine still consider arts-based health research fringe, Clarkin says. But as a visual artist herself, and as a nurse researcher, Clarkin is a fierce proponent of the restorative power of art.
She’s seen it improve lives, when people empowered to tell their own stories use them to help others.
Clarkin’s professional goal is to continue using arts-based technology to create space for stories and storytelling in health care.
“I feel more connected to being a nurse now that I have for many years,” she says.
Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist based in Wolfville, N.S. She has facilitated digital storytelling projects with Clarkin.