On Town Lake, Austin TX. Image by Denise Dicks.

We hold the power to heal ourselves—if we do it together

Catherine Woodiwiss
7 min readJun 22, 2023

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The Social Healing Project is building social webs between science, community, and personal experience. 🌱

What is Social Healing?

There’s a story told in service design circles about an electronic musician, Yoko Sen, who spent a long time in a hospital. While there, she became very sensitive to the disruptive noises that happened constantly around her. “It was not a healing environment at all,” she said. Later, she went back as a researcher and designer, so affected by her experience that she wanted to explore how to use sound to help create healing environments in hospitals. In the course of her research, she found something interesting: That patients weren’t the only ones disrupted by all the harsh and painful noises; nurses and staff were also affected by around-the-clock sounds, both human and electrical, and this was contributing to their burnout. The musician-researcher shifted her lens to attempt to design solutions for the caregivers. She ultimately created a “tranquility room,” filled with soundscapes, soothing visuals, and aromatherapy scents, for hospital staff to recharge, reflect, and relax…and bring their more healed and resilient selves to interactions with patients.

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This story never fails to move people. (It moved me to become a designer!) It’s a perfect anecdote to illustrate the power of proactive empathy: responsive and compassionate and inventive. But Sen’s experience also speaks to something else—something so obviously true that it feels silly to point out, yet almost entirely lacking in our conscious cultural awareness: Healing is social.

Healing requires the participation of other people. We need people who are willing to notice our pain. People who are willing to listen deeply, and ask questions about it. People willing to take action to support us. People who have lost someone or something similar, and can—even if they’re strangers—intimately understand something about what we’ve experienced. People who can draw on their wisdom in one discipline or expertise, and use it to observe, ask questions, and build solutions with others, toward human flourishing.

Every single one of us will experience major loss in our lifetime. Each experience of loss is different, in a million fractal ways — there are no absolute rules about what loss feels like, or how it will shape us in our lives going forward. But in our work, our team at the Social Healing Project has seen one clear pattern, across all forms of loss and all types of people experiencing it: The presence of others helps us toward healing. All of us.

II. Barriers to Social Healing

Think for a moment about a major experience you’ve had of loss and healing. I bet you can identify someone in that experience who said something helpful. Some who brought you something you needed in the moment. Maybe someone who pointed you to helpful resources, or asked you a question you hadn’t realized you needed to hear.

And yet… I can imagine you’re also now thinking of the people who didn’t show up. Or who showed up at first, but not later. All the situations where you felt, or were told, you shouldn’t speak up about your experience. All the things you’ve had to seek out and learn for yourself about healing. So many of us suffer the pains of great loss in relative silence, and are left to feel like we’re bungling our way along our healing journeys alone.

If healing being social is so self-evident, why isn’t this better practiced? Why do we struggle to say the “right” thing, with how and when to show up for others? Why can it feel so hard to find others who will help, or ask others to show up for us?

Over years of observation and research—with friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, study and prototype participants, interview subjects, event attendees, and strangers around the world—the Social Healing Project team has encountered two significant systemic barriers blocking our social contexts from this possibility of social healing:

1) We don’t have adequate, broadly-shared social scripts and frameworks to talk about loss and healing.

Contrary to popular belief, the “five stages of grief” model does not insist that there are 5 brief, linear stages to move through toward healing. But (the incorrect interpretation of!) this model is probably the most familiar—or only?—framework for healing that most of us can point to. We may personally know that grief and loss are complex and meandering, but most of our daily social contexts — work, school, social clubs — expect people experiencing loss to “bounce back” quickly.

Our public scripts are uncomfortable with the idea of “lingering” in complicated, “negative” feelings, preferring instead to encourage each other to see the bright side and proactively embrace positivity. We might be great at showing up in a moment of crisis…but after that, we largely expect people to navigate losses on their own, or get healing help from formal places (like therapy or yoga classes) instead of their closest relational networks (friends, housemates, neighbors, friends online). And while a moment of loss may be taken seriously when it involves death or major trauma, that same social grace isn’t often extended for other significant forms of life loss: illness, major life transitions, physical/mental decline, or the end of a friend/romantic/familial relationship.

And even in those communities where conversation and space around healing is more common…

2) We don’t have equitable access to the wisdom, knowledge, and medical resources that already do exist for healing.

Fortunately, we have an enormous amount of scientific data and research around indicators of mental health, flourishing, and success rates for healing interventions — i.e., what does wellbeing mean and how do we achieve it? Unfortunately, most of these findings are shared in science journals and literature reviews that often require pricey subscriptions, and a knowledge of the industry—and expert language/jargon—to find or learn from.

Fortunately, modern medicine is more able than ever to treat many forms of pain, injury, and trauma. Unfortunately, modern medicine is specialized, meaning medical professionals can care for a specific instance of pain, but are often unable (by training, or legal red tape) to attend to the whole person. Medical care is also expensive. In the United States, for example, most therapy is prohibitively costly—meaning, even if we understand what healing interventions are available to us, we may not be able to access them.

Added to all this, our communities are changing. In 2020–2021, we moved in higher numbers than ever before, leaving millions without layered, physical ties to place-based community and care. The last three years of COVID-19 have delivered a truly global, yet fractal, experience of loss. Religious attendance is also declining worldwide, and with it, we are losing connection with communal rituals and inherited wisdom around loss, pain, healing, and rebirth.

So. How do we heal from loss? What could it mean for us to embrace healing, collectively?

We’ve embarked on a year-long participatory project to tackle these questions.

III. The Social Healing Project

We (Catherine Woodiwiss, Denise Dicks, Hanneke Scholten, and Isabela Granic) are designers, scientists, and researchers who are deeply interested in the question of How we heal well, together.

Meaning is relational, contextual, and co-constructed. We know that when a major loss occurs, one of the most challenging things to reclaim can be our sense of meaning: purpose, agency, and coherency, or making sense of what’s happened/who we are, and what’s available to us now. We know that together, we hold far more wisdom and knowledge about healing than we, as individuals, usually experience in our atomized modern life.

So we’ve developed a one-year design process to open up professional expertise for more laypeople, to invite spaces to shared lived experience, and to create venues to combine these forms of knowledge into practical, evidence-based, peer-created resources for healing.

In combining science, design, community-building, and storytelling, we have a simple aim: We want to tell more, and better, stories about healing; we want to build practical, evidence-based, accessible resources from those stories; and we want to do this together!

Here’s what we’re doing in our first year:

Hosting: Healing design jams. We gather others for interdisciplinary digital workshops, bringing together scientists and science researchers, designers, healing practitioners (from social workers to therapists), and storytellers (from filmmakers to poets), to collectively consider evidence-based indicators for healing, share professional expertise and personal experience, and together build ideas for resources across a range of healing circumstances and audiences. These real-time events allow people to put their personal experiences of loss to “use” in service of others; and allow professional experts to use their expertise in collective, interdisciplinary, pro-social ways they may not have before.

Building: Healing prototypes. We develop “social healing” prototypes— building and testing products that support personal expression and mutual interaction with others. These prototypes, built by our team with a rotating cast of designers and developers, are tested with others for feedback and iteration, with the aim of public launch. (We’re currently testing our first prototype, an audio storytelling tool! Updates to come, and email us at hello@socialhealingproject.org if you’d like to learn more.) These prototypes are collectively iterated upon; they build off others’ wisdom and ideas surfaced in the healing jams, and involve a group of co-design participants to provide input and contribute meaningfully to how these are developed.

Sharing Knowledge & Wisdom: Healing frameworks, insights, and outcomes. Our ultimate dream is to build a publicly-accessible “healing library.” In this first year, we will be sharing data, ideas, and learnings from our first prototype, and developing new mental models and language for social healing along the way.

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Healing is tricky. Interdisciplinary collaboration is tricky. Participatory design is tricky! We’re working with people from a range of life experiences, backgrounds, and expertise, on a sensitive and vulnerable topic.

Our primary aim is to design sensitively, responsively, ethically, and courageously. In all our efforts, we aim to follow best practices for science research, human-centered design, and storytelling. And we hope to forge connections, ideas, experiences, and resources that help facilitate healing and uncover new perspectives on loss for each person who gets involved.

We’d love to hear from you! Especially if: You’re working on something similar, know someone we should connect with, want to fund our work in the future, or are excited about the project and want to participate! Say hello on Twitter or drop a note at hello@socialhealingproject.org. 💌

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Catherine Woodiwiss

Design Researcher | Editor & Journalist | Austin, Texas