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Boosting resilient thinking in children using character illustration and storytelling

Testing the impact of visual narrative storytelling on the improvement of resilient thinking in children


180523 Boosting resilient thinking image

Anxiety and depression are common and disabling occurences in young people and can have widespread negative effects, including on social relationships and school achievements. Emotional difficulties often emerge during childhood and can become chronic in nature. Recently, researchers have begun to explore whether simple, accessible interventions that encourage more adaptive methods of responding to emotional and social information could be effective.


About Boosting resilient thinking 

The project explored whether an intervention that improves resilient thinking in children can be effectively delivered through an illustrated book. It focused on whether visual storytelling and character illustration could challenge negative thoughts, encourage resilient thinking and reduce levels of anxiety and depression in children.

Working with Dr Jennifer Lau and Dr Victoria Pile from King’s College London’s Department of Psychology, Ali Winstanley, an artist with experience of creating character illustrations and publications, interviewed a group of 15 children aged 8-12 to determine situations that cause them worry and distress. Based on their responses, Ali produced an illustrated publication called My Memory Forest with a consistent lead character who encounters the situations that the children said they struggle with and provides examples of ways in which these can be dealt with effectively. 

The story was inspired by central ideas from Cognitive Science and therapies emerging from this discipline, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Children were given the publication to read at bedtime over a two week period and asked to rate how useful they found it. Emotional difficulties were assessed before and after the intervention to provide initial data on any changes associated with the intervention.

Project outcome

The initial aim of the project was to assess the feasibility of the proposed tool in reducing emotional difficulties in children. As the discussions with children in school revealed that targeting interpretations was not age-appropriate, the project team decided to use the storybook format to target positive and negative memories – to teach children more effective methods for consolidating information in their personal lives that could protect them against low mood in the future.

Furthermore, 40 copies of the My Memory Forest publication were also disseminated to leading child psychologists, youth mental health charities, academics, clinicians and public health bodies.

The next step is to investigate the preliminary effectiveness of this storybook intervention against a control condition. The project team have successfully applied for a grant to run a feasibility trial in which 56 children aged 6-8 years from primary schools in London will be allocated to one of two groups and assessed before and after the intervention on key measures of depressive and anxiety symptoms, but also measure of memory specificity and mental imagery vividness. These data will represent the first steps towards assessing the efficacy of this intervention as a means to boost emotional resilience.

Project blog

Ali Winstanely, project collaborator, has written a blog on the progress of the project so far which includes details of the book produced as part of the project My Memory Forest.

You can read Ali's blog here .

Project team

Dr Jennifer Lau
Jennifer is Reader in Developmental Psychopathology, Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN). Her research interests lie in understanding mood and anxiety problems in children and young people; and in particular, the neural and cognitive mechanisms by which genetic and environmental risk factors interact to influence atypical emotional and social development. Jennifer completed her doctorate at the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London. After a brief visiting fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health, she worked at Oxford as University Lecturer and Tutorial Fellow in Experimental Psychology before returning to the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s in 2013, where she oversees the work of the Researching Emotional Disorders and Development (REDD) lab.

You can find out more about the REDD lab here.

Dr Victoria Pile
Victoria is HEE/NIHR CLinical Doctoral Fellow in the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience. Her primary research interest is in developing early interventions for anxiety and depression in young people. In particular, her research focuses on the role that mental imagery and positive affect have in depression. Victoria is a chartered clinical psychologist and enjoys working at the interface between research and clinical work, valuing the benefit that each bring to treatment innovation. An overarching aim of her research is to translate findings from cognitive science to develop more effective and more accessible psychological interventions for young people. Victoria completed her clinical training at the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry & Neuroscience. She worked in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, before joining the REDD team in 2014.  

Ali Winstanley
Ali is an artist, photographer, curator and producer with 13 years experience in the arts, cultural and health sectors. Her creative work spans character illustration, collage, costume, photography and sculpture.  She has produced her own illustrated publications and exhibited internationally; her work is also held in the Outsider Art collection of The Museum of Everything.  Ali has experience in a variety of therapeutic and community arts and has worked with Trust Thamesmead, Resonate, Kid’s Company, Homerton Hospital Neurorehabilitation Unit, and Helsinki Night of the Arts Festival. She works as a portrait photographer on projects promoting healthy ageing, and her images have been used at ageing conferences hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine, The Institute for Longevity, Royal College of Art and Greater London Authority, as well as being featured by the Guardian, the humanities journal Age Culture and in the recent Pan Macmillan book How to Age. Ali currently produces community mental health, arts and well-being events for South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, working alongside artists from the Bethlem Gallery and colleagues at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s; and works part time for the Health Innovation Network at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Trust, producing patient experience and digital health innovation projects and events. She has a BA in Psychology from the University of Sheffield and an Interdisciplinary Award in Art and Mental Health from King's College London.

Follow her on Twitter @WellbeingEngage.

Boosting resilient thinking in children using character illustration and storytelling is a collaboration between King's College London’s Department of Psychology and artist, photographer, curator and producer, Ali Winstanley.  It was supported by the university's Culture team.


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