“We need to move beyond head-clutcher images and find new ways to visually represent mental health problems.”, I read a couple of days ago. I disagree, at least to an extent, and this post is an account why.
The words come from Prof. Miranda Wolpert, who makes a fuller argument about making images reflecting “living with or recovering from mental health problems”. The main argument she makes is as follows. Mental illness imagery should be more nuanced. Indeed, she shows that imagery for depression rendered by google searches are predominantly black and white pictures of people, often holding their head in their hands. I think it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment of the argument. The problem, in my view, is that it largely misses the point. And this is what I want to argue below.
Prof. Wolpert suggests a four-fold solution. First, she suggests that images should not be focused on the head (or upper body) only. You could show the entire body. Moreover, the author suggests colour coding of various experiences, with depression shown in blue, while anger is red-yellow and black. Second, a more nuanced reflection of the experience – she shows a ‘regular’ portrait of a young man. Third, the way I understand it, imagery should show the process of mental illness, living with it, not only a snapshot of the state of mental illness.
Does that all make sense? Yes, sort of. I do have some trouble with colour-coding mental illness, though, as such colouring is likely to be culture-specific. For me anger is red (I really don’t understand the yellow in anger), while depression is black. In fact, the figure that Wolpert shows as neutral is much closer to depression than the blue one. For me depression is not ‘blues’, it’s a ‘black dog’. But to be honest these are fairly minor issues. The ‘real’ problem is very different.
What I think Prof. Wolpert misses in her argument is that images are not just ‘passive’ illustrations, they also have a communicative point. It makes very little sense, in my view, to say that certain pictures are good, because they represented depression in a particular way, and certain are bad, because they don’t. Any discussion of imagery of mental illness must take into account what exactly the point of the images you see is.
And so, if you want to show how people despair, you put culturally appropriate images of despair. And that means, for all intents and purposes, a head-clutcher image. Because this is how we despair (yes, I do know it’s more complex)! If, on the other hand, you want to show a person who can enjoy their life, then you show a person enjoying their life.
Moreover, there is a socially appropriate reason why imagery of people in despair focuses on the head rather than on the entire figure. Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen suggest in their brilliant “Reading images” that such a closeup constructs a personal relationship between the viewer and the represented person. In other words, the focus on the head is to construct compassion. Is it all bad? I don’t think so. The full figure will render the relationship as much more impersonal. We may well want to achieve that, but I would like us to make a conscious decision about what exactly we do. In other words, before we ban all head-clutching images, let’s understand what exactly they do and what we want to achieve with it.
Now, Prof. Wolpert’s text is not the first plea for change in how mental illness is represented visually. Such pleas appear fairly regularly. I must admit that I personally don’t have a problem with depression being represented in terms of despair or profound sadness, and I would have a problem with representations of depression in terms of people having fun. I am also sceptical that such representation is particularly stigmatising.
Indeed, judging by stories of depression I collected from men, it is precisely understanding this profound sadness that they wanted and didn’t get. They were tired of having to tell people that that a drink will not help them (even a whole bottle), that they cannot ‘snap out of it’, or that they cannot will the depression off. They wanted people to understand that they were in despair and that they needed help. I hadn’t asked them about it, but my guess would be that they would have had nothing against all the head-clutching in the world.
Now, I would also suggest that the problem with arguments for imagery change is that see such imagery outside the context in which they occur. And I think that more often than not, imagery that Wolpert finds after googling depression tends to be associated with other texts, usually media articles, blogs, advice or what have you. Presumably then, the head-clutchers in one way or another reflect, reinforce (or are anchored by, as Roland Barthes would have it) the text and its tone (perhaps they don’t, but that’s a different argument altogether). And, in fact, the problem is not so much the imagery. The problem is that, say, depression is written about predominantly in terms of despair, sadness, profound unhappiness.
I would caution against writing about depression in terms fun and joy. I am also sceptical about the insistence that people just ‘live’ with their illness. For one, I don’t – I suffer (here is an earlier post about rejecting ‘living with’). And I hate this exercise in normalising by ‘living with’. Still, I would imagine that there are all sorts of things you write about depression, apart from repeating that it’s all doom and gloom, even though it is. But, I agree with Wolpert, recovery could be one such theme.
And so, I propose that Prof. Wolpert’s plea should not so much be about the imagery, but, rather, about the fact that depression tends to be written about in texts which can be illustrated by imagery of despair. If we write about despair, we will get culturally/socially appropriate images of despair. If we write about, I don’t know, recovery from depression, we will need different imagery.
The problem is not so much the imagery. The problem is how, we, as a society, understand mental illness, what we make of it. And perhaps this is what we should consider in the first place. The images, I think, will take care of themselves.