Taking a Picture of Mental Health

A current Time to Change campaign is challenging the media to think more about the images it uses when talking about mental health. So often, a well-written piece of journalism or intriguing article is accompanied by an image that is fast becoming iconic: an apparently average looking person with their head in their hands, staring at the ground in apparent despair. Or, as it is now being dubbed, The “headclutcher”.

It’s understandable that articles about the flu have adopted the sneezing human with the tissue and the red nose as their mascot, but mental health is too broad of an issue to be effectively captured by one stock photo.

Firstly, people with mental health issues – that is to say, a lot of people – don’t sit around despairing all day. If they did, and given the percentage of people believed to suffer from some kind of mental health issue, nothing would get done. If one in four of us, or whatever the current statistic is, sat holding our heads in dismay all day, western society  as we know it would be down the pan!

Secondly, one image cannot and will never be able to fully represent what mental health looks like – simply because it doesn’t look like any one thing. Depression, bi-polar, anxiety, OCD…, whatever it may be, are all different things, experienced by different people to different degrees.

But it is clear why there is a problem: how do you capture mental health in a photograph? What does it look like? How do we avoid this grey person in an isolated corner with their head bowed?

Do we need to show the climb and the struggle that people can face?


Do we need to show isolation and loneliness?


How do you accurately capture daily anxiety? What does depression look like? How do you take a snap shot of OCD?

Putting it into to words can be hard enough. Let’s take a typical morning routine. Let’s focus on the oven. It’s nice to check it’s off, to take each button at a time and inspect it. It’s not been on since last night, but you never know, do you? So, it needs a bit of attention, just to be sure. And just to be sure, and when the brain starts to inevitably wonder,  something more is needed to help be sure it’s off. Really sure. So how about a little toe-tapping? Just a quick tap, one for each dial. One, two, three, four, five. Off, Off, Off, Off, OFF. Then it’s time to leave. Time to get on with the day.

Can you take a picture of that?

And what about social anxiety. Listening to the conversation with only 50% of your brain, using the other half to make sure you’re about to say the right thing. Figuring out how to go back and correct that silly thing you said two sentences ago.

Can you take a photo of that?

Can you take a photo of someone thinking they might have left their curling iron on and jumping to the conclusion, seconds later, that they are on, that the house will burn down, that someone will be killed and that it will be all their fault? Would that photo need a flash? Over exposure?

Can you take a picture of indecisiveness? Intrusive thoughts? Depression?

Can you take a picture of someone who is, most of the time, balanced and coping with life? Who has only had one day off work in three years? Who has functioning relationships with a partner, family, and friends? Who is articulate, competent and often happy? Can you capture all this along side the war in the brain that so many people fight? Can you? Because most, if not all, of the above hold true for a number of people with diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health problems. 

People must go on talking about and tackling mental health issues. Talented phot
ographers, I implore you to keep looking for images as writers must keep finding words. Because the “headclutcher” doesn’t cut it anymore, and it never has.


2 thoughts on “Taking a Picture of Mental Health

  1. And yet, I spent much of today actually BEING a “headclutcher.” Go figure. I applaud the effort to not stereotype, but truth is, stereotypes do not form in a vacuum. And today, I was one. 🙂 Here’s hoping tomorrow is better.


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