Free stock photos show mental illness more accurately and sympathetically

Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have released a series of images that designers and journalists should use instead of someone clutching their head.

If you need to represent mental illness in one of your projects, two charities are giving you photos to use instead of the stigmatising ‘headclutcher’.

The way mental illness is being presented in the media has been under scrutiny again after the stigmatising way that the actions of Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz were blamed on depression on the front pages of British tablets. However, alongside this appalling treatment of the condition is a drip-feed of simplistic representations of mental illness – both in the choice of language and imagery.

Often mental illness is represented by what Get The Picture – a campaign by mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness – calls the ‘headclutcher’: a photo of a person slumped with their head in their hands, often with their face hidden. The charities surveyed 1,980 people and found that 58% thought it was stigmatising, and 80% thought it didn’t accurately represent what having mental illness was like.

Image: A young woman suffering from depression

“The ‘headclutcher’ is an unfair and inaccurate representation of what life is like with a mental health condition,” says Rehaan Ansari, a 24-year-old medical student who is part of the Get The Picture campaign, "but it’s often the image most commonly associated with people who experience them. It’s definitely time to change the backwards attitude that mental health conditions are something to be ashamed of.”

Image: Workplace conversation with two men

To help designers, journalists and picture researchers use more appropriate imagery of mental illness, the charities have worked with photographic agency Newscast and the UK Picture Editors’ Guild to create a series of images – which are free to download from Newscast.

Image: Two men holding hands

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The collection is small but it’s possible to find usable shots for most situations I could think of. Yes, some of them are awkwardly posed (and not intentionally) and some need a Levels filter applied to them in Photoshop – but if you need more professional shots, there’s a good selection on iStock if you use the right search terms.

Image: Antidepressants subject search On Google

The collection also serves as a reminder of the importance of thinking about the wider context when choosing photos related to sensitive subjects – especially when you know that photo will be used again and again, causing a Pavlovian reaction in viewers' brains. When 30% of the charities’ survey respondent said that seeing images of suicide or self-harm make them think of harming themselves, the effect can be very damaging indeed.

Photography representing mental illness needs to stop being focussed on individuals lost and alone, and instead show that support is out there – whether from friends, family, charities or health organisations.

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You can download the photos from Newscast.