31 Aug

by Justin Standfield

From time to time, I need to put together brochures, posters and online material to promote some of the services I offer at The Calm Barn.

For some people, they decide to learn about mindfulness meditation because they are experiencing some level of mental ill health, such as persistent feelings of anxiety or low mood. Numerous research studies and clinical trials have shown that mindfulness meditation - when practised regularly (especially as part of an eight-week programme) - can be as effective as medication in leading to improved mental health outcomes. For some people I know, they have even referred to this experience as “recovery".

Given that a percentage of my target audience for mindfulness programmes will have lower levels of mental health than they want, I aim to show that The Calm Barn is relevant to them by depicting people with depression, anxiety or stress-related ill health in my marketing materials from time to time.

When sourcing appropriate photography for these materials, I’ve discovered something rather unique to the world of mental health imagery - the ‘person clutching their head’ pose. It seems to be so prevalent in stock photography libraries and search engines, that someone somewhere has clearly decided that this particular body language represents what it’s like to live with a mental health condition (it appears with equal frequency when searching with the words “depression”, “anxiety” or “stress”). It’s like some sort of visual shorthand that tells us that this is what someone with a mental health issue should look like.

In reality, the symptoms associated with most mental health conditions vary and are not constant or equally intense 24/7. We know that “a picture paints a thousand words”, so I understand that photographers are trying to capture the essence of depression or anxiety in a recognisable snapshot. However, the montage of images you see below that I created for this blog article shows several dark pictures with faces in shadow, and most of them look quite scary, bleak and off-putting. It’s estimated that 1 in 6 people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem in the UK (source: Mental Health Foundation) - with that in mind, are these images really how we want to portray mental ill health?

Because most of the ‘head clutching’ pictures that I’ve been seeing online have the person positioned with their hands covering their face, I believe it could contribute to the stigma that mental health conditions are something to be ashamed of and therefore hidden away. One could go as far as to say that these images are de-humanising because of the lack of a face or a pair of eyes to connect with.

From now on, I’m going to make a commitment to source and use photography that normalises mental health in The Calm Barn marketing; for example, it might simply show someone walking their dog, scrolling through their mobile phone or having a coffee with a friend. If you’re looking for good quality photography for any mental health related projects you’re working on, I recommend checking out Unsplash, which is a website of over 2 million high-resolution images from a massive community of photographers. A quick search on their website - using the same keywords mentioned above - reveals some powerful images that represent mental health with only two or three ‘head-clutchers’ among dozens of photographs.