This is a really worthwhile campaign – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/getthepicture (Found via the lovely @SLCathy)
One of the great cliches of mental health reporting is the headclutcher photo; You know the one – Person sitting, often on a flight of stairs or backed against a wall, with face obscured by hair and head held in one or both hands.
Funnily enough, a lot like the pose I’ve been adopting in trying to deal with this over-prolonged photophobic migraine.
But yes. Headclutching is, although not unheard of, not common. I’ve known individuals who’ve last-second resisted self-harm by sitting on their hands, gripping their arms, twisting their hands in their hair or just plain grabbing their heads, and of course tricotillomania is a thing, but why those two comparatively rare situations are the headline way that we represent mental illness is a bit beyond me.
The cynic in me says “It’s because it’s a way to show mental illness in a way that doesn’t show someone’s face.” Is mental illness still so stigmatised that we won’t show a face next to it? And considering that we use stock photos including faces for stories about all kinds of incredibly embarrassing or personal things, even things with quite a stigma to them (The classic “Woman sitting on edge of bed looking sadly at camera whilst man sleeps behind her” photo for all sexual advice columns). So what makes mental illness so bad that it feels like a risk to put a face, even a face with “Picture posed by actors” written below it, next to it?
The realist in me says “It’s because nobody really understands that mental illness happens to both more and less people than you think, and that those people are just people”. I’ve talked about mental illness before as being a bit like asthma. Some people will have one attack, ever, and never really have to think about it again. Some people will know that they’re prone to asthma attacks, so will know when they need to go to the doctor to get another inhaler. Some people will have asthma for their whole lives, and carry an inhaler everywhere, but will have it so well-managed that other than the prescription, you’d not really know. Some people will be hooked up to a nebuliser and barely able to get a sentence out straight for weeks on end. Some people’s whole lives will be defined by their asthma, and some won’t even think about it much.
This is why the “One in four!” statistic bothers me so much, as well – Every time someone cheerfully says “Oh well, one in four of us will get a mental illness at some point!” in response to someone disclosing their illness, they’re doing both a very good and a very bad thing. Firstly, they’re reminding themself that mental illness is common and that the mentally ill aren’t a terrifying other (which is good) but secondly, they’re often using it as a card to allow themselves to not have to listen to the ill person.
Possibly a good way to think of it is that one in four people have mental illness at some point in their life, but it’s far less than one in four that end up disabled by them. It’s also useful to increase awareness that not all mental illnesses are the same, just like not all physical illnesses are the same.
So, what’s this got to do with headclutchers?
Well, one of the things that’s the problem with the headclutcher is that it portrays mental illness as always being acute, and it portrays acute mental illness as always being headclutchy. If you expect the mentally ill person to look depressed and have their head in their hands, you won’t notice the bipolarbear on a spending spree, or the schizophrenic who’s suddenly convinced that her girlfriend is cheating on her, or even just the depressive who’s given up on his sport and doesn’t go to the pub anymore.
It also means that someone who is experiencing mental ill health, and tells someone about it, is less likely to be believed if they don’t look headclutchy in some way (If not literally clutching their head, then at least physically not in complete control of their body, possibly badly-groomed and unable to make eye contact). Some people do, some don’t – Some feel like they do, but have such a command of social norm that it doesn’t take them much effort at all to put on their best suit and look well, so they look normal anyway.
So, what’s the alternative? We still need photos to go with stories about mental illness.
Here’s a few that I can think of, as a non-expert, so they might not be good, but at least they’re not nothing;
For stories about hospitals, services, or inpatient treatment – Pictures of the facilities? Signs pointing to the psych ward, lovely redbrick hospital frontages, waiting rooms nicely decorated with big fish tanks, or empty wards illustrating numbers of beds. No faces required, since it’s about service provision. Possibly even pictures of telephones, for phone services.
For stories about diagnosis – GPs’ waiting rooms, the outside of the surgery, a stereotypical GP’s office. They’re much more relevant to the actual act of being diagnosed than
For stories about medication – Pictures of pill packets, or dosette boxes. Still no faces, and no judgment with them. Also an opportunity for pictures of your friendly local pharmacist or similar.
For stories about suicide rates – First of all, for fuck’s sake, stop showing methods. Secondly, stop showing headclutchers because it’s still inaccurate, and someone that’s looking for headclutching isn’t going to be looking for actual warning signs. And why not just illustrate with landscape photos of wherever you’re talking about? It gets across some of the sense of the story, the physical location, it isn’t graphically horrible, and frankly a nice landscape might cheer up anyone who’s just spend ten minutes reading about preventable death.
For stories that really are about mentally ill people – Why not just use pictures of people? If the story is about a footballer who became mentally ill, show someone playing. If it’s about a new talking therapy, show two people talking. If it’s about getting ill when on holiday, show someone on a beach or something. Effectively, the story is about someone’s mental illness, so you don’t need to reiterate that they’re ill by showing them, inaccurately, headclutching. Yes, a picture of someone kicking a football doesn’t tell you anything new about mental health, but at least it doesn’t spread a lie like a headclutch does.
Anyway, yes. Support #GetThePicture on Twitter. Time To Change are doing really good work.