Mental illness affects one out of four people in the UK, if you have not been affected directly, chances are you know someone who has been and that can be really tough.
As one of my Twitter followers Trevor put it: “The problem is that when you have a broken leg people can see that immediately but when you have a broken brain it’s not as obvious”.
Our mental health is affected by everyday events which we try to dismiss or consider “normal” such as stress. How many of you have experienced stress for a prolonged period? It consumes you and therefore it’s no surprise to hear stress is the biggest killer.
I want to discuss photography and mental illness.
I am not a mental health expert, it’s too broad a subject and I will not attempt to claim I know much about it, I have however had very close friends suffering from it and I’ve personally been fighting a bit of an internal battle for most of my life, I just never had it officially diagnosed, nor do I ever speak of it.
With regards to how it affected my best friend, back in 2000 we had just moved to London from France for what was supposed to be an adventure of a lifetime, we were in our early twenties. I ended up seeing him go from what we call “normal” (there’s no such thing as normal by the way) down a vicious spiral of paranoia / schizophrenia in the short space of a year which he is still battling nearly 20 years on. It was tough seeing my best mate change and suffer so much without the ability to actually help him, I felt powerless.
He’d phone me from work regularly, in a panic, telling me everyone was looking at him and talking about him, asking me, but I was only on the phone, if this was real. I tried my best to reassure him when he needed it but it never really lasted very long. For months we tried to battle this until his parents came to drag him back to France by force to get treatment, well… pumping him full of pills that turned him into a zombie which never really actually helped but then… nor could I despite my best intentions.
In my personal experience and slight struggle, in no way as bad as my friend’s, I found that photography helped a great deal putting my anxieties at the back of my mind and to focus on something positive instead of damaging recurring thoughts. That’s a reason why I love photography.
Photography is a meditative process similar to cookery, carving wood or painting. You immerse yourself into something, you zone in and focus on it, shutting down the outside world for a bit, turning that wild angry river of thoughts into a mirror-like lake (my way of describing meditation).
I’ve been shooting for a little over a decade and I have spoken to many people who have related to this experience, this meditative feeling photography provides. The camera is a little feel-good box.
I decided to ask others in my network to share their experience with mental illness and using photography as a form of therapy:
“I’ve had two mental breakdowns. My last was brought-on by pressure at work. I was only sleeping half an hour each night and not eating. I ended up bursting into tears at work, went off work for ten weeks and kept mentally spiralling down hill. I ended up being admitted to St Anne’s hospital for a period of time. When I was stabilised by my medication I was discharged. When I got home I was scared to leave the house. My parents just managed to get me to my doctor who knew I loved nature and photography. She recommended I set the timer on my phone for five minutes, go outside take some photos and when the timer went off go home and write in a diary how I felt. I would gradually increase the time when I felt comfortable to do so. When you’re going through a mental breakdown all your thoughts spin out of control, instead when I was looking through the lens of my camera I was concentrating on that one moment in time while my thoughts faded into the background and it gave me some head space.”
I’ve never been told that I have a mental illness. It’s all started with the bullying and trolling that I got, and still get, it’s been three years of that. Every day when I want to scream or cry my eyes out, I’ll pick up my cameras, head out to the woods and lake at the end of the road and let nature hear my cries. While I’m sitting there looking at the views, trying not to feel sorry for myself and asking the Universe to help, I look at the views in front of me and it makes me feel better, then I start trying to capture that with a camera. I see the results and it takes my mind off it and I get excited about creating an image.
For me photography was a way to recover from anorexia. This thing about beauty everywhere, even in the most common things… I thought: if nature is beautiful, I can’t be ugly, because I’m part of it. Photography also helps let people know how I see the world.
And as for me… photography has given me so much, it’s changed my life.
First of all it has provided me with a healthy hobby that requires me to go outside and walk, wander around and explore. There’s nothing like fresh air, exercise and nature to soothe the mind. Sitting on a sofa between four walls is not the best way to look after your mind and body.
There is also a feeling of reward you get when you head out for a day shooting and get THE shot. You have no guarantees it will happen, you just hope. When you achieve something, that rewarding feeling is dopamine being released in your brain. It’s a bit addictive, so you want to do repeat it, it’s a good feeling.
Photography is highly rewarding on many levels. Not only can you be rewarded with an above-average shot but with time you may have your work published. That’s a good feeling too, knowing people enjoy what you do. This can lead to getting paid to shoot which is fabulous, who doesn’t want to be paid for doing something they love?
Photography is also a great tool to help others and not just yourself. In my case it’s through my blog that I try to help photographers get their work seen or whatever else is the goal they’ve set. It’s the best way I think I can help by sharing my experience.
I have found photography to be a powerful drive to succeed, far more than my original career in luxury hospitality, an energy I never thought I had in me. It makes me want to kick some ass, because I’ve had my successes and it made me believe that I CAN, encouraging me to keep taking it up a notch, and another, and another… I now feel like nothing is impossible in life if I could teach myself a skill, become good at it and market it to potential clients in only ten years then what else could I achieve? YOU CAN too.
Taking photos is a form of expression and communication. My ten years shooting is actually a decade-long visual diary. If you observe my photos carefully, although I do not ever claim any hidden message, it is certain that a lot of me is revealed through them: Urban solitude, humour, darkness, love and other emotions / feelings I felt at that split second when I pressed the shutter.
On a human level, photography can reconcile one with the human race however flawed it is at times.
Because you get yourself out-there and interact with people you otherwise would not, you end up increasingly relating to people as humans and empathy leads to love instead of hate.
There’s no shortage of hate around us but love is there too, if you allow it in. I tend to favour things which encourage more love. That’s why I avoid using social media to bitch or hate as it’ll suck the love out of you if you follow that path.
I’ve also made a few true friends from social media around my photography, the closest being Iwona Pinkowicz, a super fun and talented portrait photographer.
Here it is, my personal experience and a few other opinions which in turn I hope will help at least one person affected by mental illness think: Maybe I should try take some photos and see how it makes me feel?
Have you been affected by mental illness? If photography has helped you or a relative please leave a comment here.