El Susto: The role of storytelling in solving Type 2 Diabetes in Mexico

Becky Bausman

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Becky Bausman

Recently I attended a discussion series event hosted by The diaTribe Foundation that posed a fascinating question: What is the role of storytelling in solving the Type 2 Diabetes public health crisis?

As a Duartian, I’m a devotee of the supernatural power of story, and I’ve found myself reflecting on this question in the weeks since the event.

To me it’s a larger question: What is the role of story in solving any big, nasty, intractable social problem? Heaven knows we have a few to deal with in 2020.

One answer continues to swirl to the forefront as I’ve ruminated on this: Stories create, shape, and transform our myths. Myth plays a starring role in the unfolding Type 2 Diabetes crisis in Mexico, which was the specific topic of the event I attended.

We screened Karen Akins’ fantastic documentary, “El Susto,” about the severity of the diabetes crisis in Mexico and the ferocious mix of economic, social, and cultural challenges that stand in the way of solving it.

El Susto (Spanish for “The Shock”) is an illness believed in by indigenous people in Latin American cultures including Mexico. A person experiences stress from, say, the death of a close loved one, or a destructive earthquake, and as a result, experiences symptoms, like fever, diarrhea, and insomnia.

The thing is, millions of Mexicans believe El Susto is the cause of Type 2 Diabetes—not diets alarmingly high in sugar and processed foods. That’s a big problem for public health officials and medical professionals, who need to convince the public to change their diet.

Akins’ film features interviews with several indigenous Mexicans sharing the stories they’ve heard throughout their lives about El Susto as the cause of diabetes—the stories of their parent, a grandparent, or a neighbor from long ago who “got diabetes” because of El Susto.

Enter: The power of story

As the film progresses, those same Mexicans begin to share their own personal stories of life with diabetes, and of how they’ve learned first-hand how diet and sugar impact their health.

They talk about how their two-liter-of-soft-drinks-a-day habits and other diet choices caused their illnesses. And now, those are the stories they’ll tell their own children and friends.

Because of story, slowly, over time, the myth of diabetes’ cause will adjust in the culture to one that’s more factually correct.

Think of this phenomenon in relation to any problematic social issue. Climate change, poverty, systematic racism, religious conflicts…. In every case, there are stories being told that collectively become the myths upon which entire belief systems and resulting behaviors are based.

Change the stories, and the myths will evolve.


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