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The Tree of Life is a narrative therapy project, designed by Ncazelo Ncube of REPSSI and David Denborough (Dulwich Centre Foundation) for young people. I have recently adapted it for a 6 week adult eating disorders group, as it provides a useful structure and mix of discussion and creative work. At the end of the course, the clients also have a piece of work that they can take away with them.

I thought I’d share the general concept with you, as it could be a good home project. All you need is a large sheet of paper and some pens. For each section, draw part of the tree, reflect on the topic and the questions and then make some notes on your drawing.

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Roots: The roots are a metaphor for where you come from, your family history and those who have taught you most in life. It can include where you were born, where you went to school, old family stories and important lessons you learnt when growing up.

  • What roots do you have in your life?
  • How important are these?
  • Does your past influence who you are today?
  • Do you feel that your roots have any impact on your mental health?
  • Do you have any favourite memories?
  • Has your perception of your roots changed over time?
  • If you’ve moved to England from another country, is your old nationality still a big part of your identity?

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Ground: The ground is a metaphor for your present life and some of the day-to-day activities you engage in. For example, who you live with now, your work or education and where you go each day.

  • What is the ground like in your life?
  • What influences you on a daily basis?
  • Who do you live with?
  • Do you have a favourite place that you visit?
  • Does your mental health problem affect your day-to-day life?
  • Is your ground fairly stable or frequently changing? (could represent with flat or bumpy ground)

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Trunk: The trunk of our tree is going to symbolise our skills and abilities. The things that we (or others) feel we are good at. This can range from being a good friend or listener, to being good at a particular subject at school.

  • What skills or abilities do you have?
  • Can you play an instrument/draw/write?
  • Are you organised?
  • Are you good at looking after people?
  • How important are these abilities to you? Do you value them in others?
  • Do you find it easier to think of your faults compared to your skills?
  • Are there any skills other people think you have? (ask others)
  • Do you think you have any abilities which can help you overcome your mental health problem? E.g. expression through art

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Branches: The branches represent your hopes, dreams and aspirations.

  • If you could have three wishes, what would they be?
  • Do you hope for health, happiness, success, money, family etc?
  • Do you aspire to be a nursery nurse, actor, vet, etc?
  • How achievable do you feel your aspirations are?
  • What would need to happen for you to achieve these?
  • Has your mental health affected what you are hoping for or aspiring to be?
  • Do you have hopes and wishes for other people in your life?

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Leaves: So, we are now going to work on our leaves, to show important people in our lives. These can range from friends, family, members of staff, etc. Anyone who plays an important role in your life. You might also want to acknowledge people who have passed away as ‘fallen leaves’ or ‘leaves in the wind’.

  • Who plays an important role in your life and your recovery?
  • What type of influence have they had?
  • If they’ve helped, how?
  • Do you have a favourite memory with each of these people?
  • Do you feel that you have played an important role in their lives?
  • Do you think they will continue to be involved in your life?
  • Has your mental health affected your relationships at all?
  • How might your relationship change in the future?

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Fruit: We are now going to add fruit (any type you want including flowers and conkers), which will symbolise the gifts you have received from the important people in your life. These can range from material gifts to expressions of kindness.

  • Have these people provided you with a shoulder to cry on, support, compliments or hugs?
  • What have your parents taught you?
  • Have they ever given you a material gift which meant a lot to you?
  • How have these gifts helped you?
  • What have you given them in return?

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The Forest: If you are completing this project with others, put up your trees on the wall next to each other to make a forest. Take it in turns to present your trees to each other and write positive feedback on each other’s sheets.

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Storms: Take the time to think about what might be a threat to your trees. For this we use the metaphor of storms. These can include everything from family conflict, mental health behaviours, self harm, lack of resources, loss of important people in your life, etc.

  • What storms have you experienced in the past?
  • How did you manage with these?
  • What storms do you think there might be in the future?
  • Do you feel that your mental health problems have been a storm in your life?

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Animals: We are now going to talk about animals which might come during a storm. These might be important people or services in your life who are good in a crisis.

  • Who is good in a crisis?
  • What services are helpful?
  • What type of animals could represent them?
  • What type of characteristics do they have?
  • Do you ever act as an animal for someone else who is in a storm?

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Final letters: Once you have finished your tree and added your animals, take the time to write some letters to the important people you have thought about when creating your tree. You can write to thank them or express something that you always wanted to tell them. You don’t necessarily need to give them the letter, but it may help to share your thoughts with them. You could also write to people who have passed on, if there’s something you wish you could have told them.

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