Mental health is an incredibly broad topic, with implications and impacts spanning innumerable aspects of life. In order to broach the subject and develop an initial understanding of its depth, extensive research began into how mental health and illness is presented in news articles and academic papers. Analysing and discussing the portrayal of content across these outlets then lead to the development of participant mapping in groups.
Human & Non-Human Participants Maps
Having further refined each of the participants maps separately, it was interesting to try and construct a single, simplified version that conveyed an overall sense of the endless layers of connectivity between each of the actors. I chose to use broad terms to represent all the individual actors that fall within their scope. This was a way of emphasising the interconnectivity between the various bodies, rather than their diverse representations.
What I came to understand through these maps is that no single participant stands alone. There are countless options, facilities, groups and people with whom they have a direct connection. These connections are vital in promoting an honest representation of mental health, spreading awareness of available services and options, and invalidating stigmas and misconceptions from the public’s mind and dialogue.
The following collection of imagery has been selected for their personal and emotive resonance within the perspective of mental health. It was not considered important to me whether the origins of these works were based within the field of mental health. Some were created in direct response to personal experiences with mental health, others have no definitive link beyond my personal interpretation.
A significant distinction between this image archive and the text-based archive, sourced from both news articles and scholarly readings, is that these works are all highly emotive. A feature that none of the written sources managed to capture was the intense emotional and mental states that exist for those who personally experience mental health issues – both directly and indirectly.
Henrietta Harris, Print
Harris’ work does not make any direct references to mental health, yet when looking at a selection of her paintings I instantly felt a sense of recognition. The concept of not being entirely together, that a part of your head (by which I mean the brain as a conscious and subconscious entity, rather than an organ) can be misaligned from the rest, has powerful resonance for me. In my experience, mental illness is the state of a segment of your brain, your thoughts, your decisions, and your feelings being “other”.
The depiction of the mouth and nose – two powerful sensory facilitators – being disjointed from the rest of the head conveys the mental state of thinking/knowing one thing, but feeling another. This lack of control over thought could be considered one of the biggest frustrations for those who struggle with mental health issues. An inability to stop or dissuade particular persistent, negative or unwanted thoughts can have incredibly significant impact upon a person’s daily life.
This work differs from the media and scholarly sources I have researched as it makes no specific reference to the topic of mental health, and yet has a deep, personal resonance within that field.
Henrietta Harris, Your Tomorrow
Again, whilst Harris makes no direct inference, there are a myriad of mental illnesses that can be interpreted from this artwork. She shows an appreciation for the complexities and uncontrollable nature of thought, which is often experienced by those suffering from anything between anxiety and OCD to dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia. This work expresses the experience of the individual, showing the persona as fluctuating between two mental states, neither settling into place long enough to form a coherent thought.
An interesting aspect to Harris’ works is the choice not to depict these personas as strange or visibly ill. She emphasises the fact that mental illness does not have any overtly obvious physical signs. There are no casts or crutches to show a person’s struggles, so you cannot judge their health based off of appearances. The normalcy of the persona’s appearance, from her dress to her expression, can also be seen as a comment on the fact those who suffer from mental health issues are not ‘other’ and should not be segregated from ‘normal’ society. Unlike the resources I’ve read which all discuss statistics and states of welfare, Harris’ depicts an individual to generate a deeply emotional and empathetic response from the viewer.
Adam Lupton, The Only Way Out Is In
Lupton’s series ‘What’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take?’ references the concept of quantum mechanics wherein “any and all possibilities are realised in one universe or another” [Jablotschkin 2013] and yet the final artwork ‘The Only Way Out Is In’ utilises visuals that resonate strongly within the realm of mental health.
For many who suffer from forms of mental illness, there are moments or hours or days when countless thoughts, actions and possibilities are running through their head at such rapid speeds that they can barely separate one as distinct from another. This inability to filter ones thought processes and focus on a single occupation at a given moment can easily be interpreted from many of Lupton’s paintings within the series. Yet this particular depiction has the strongest emotional response for me as the man shifts between at least five states/actions, where he is equally distracted but varyingly distressed.
A visual such as this has conveyed a far better representation of the impact of mental illness on the supposedly simple execution of mundane tasks than any article or paper I have discovered. The internalised struggle of so many people is here laid bare chaotically, offering an honest insight into the mind of another.
Tracey Emin, My Bed
‘My Bed’ is an installation piece by Tracey Emin, where she is presenting the public with a harsh reality, the visual of her bed during the aftermath of her nervous breakdown. This deeply personal moment – being confined mentally to ones bed – is exposed to the general masses engaging them in an intimate portrayal of universal emotions.
Emin does not seek to hide the undesirable or ‘shameful’ elements of her experience. She lays the scene and allows viewers to witness the very real physical impacts of mental illness. Such a candid portrayal of her personal struggles truly takes a pickaxe at the walls society puts around open discussion of the issue. She defies the norm by being open about a time in her life that is still lost in the bog of stigma. The brain is an immensely complicated organ, and yet we so often as a society choose to disregard or underestimate its uniqueness, fragility and control over the body.
Emin’s installation is similar to the scholarly sources I’ve researched in that there is clear removal from the extremely personal content. By presenting the scene objectively, removed from a grander situational or explanatory context, she is allowing viewers to reach their own conclusions. There is a similarity in the manner in which academic author’s relay their findings and how Emin presents the direct results of her extended confinement to her bed.
Davide Cambria, I See Our Enemies
When first discovering this artwork online there was no title or description included to provide any sense of the context within which the piece was generated. Consequentially, I formed my own interpretation based on the painting’s emotive, expressionism and the fact the figure is turned away from the viewer, head down facing a wall. The use of grey suggested melancholy, whilst the subject’s posture conveyed shame and seclusion. These themes resonated strongly with my understanding of mental illness, as sufferers often feel ‘other’ from their peers and society, particularly at such a young age, as this figure appears to be.
While a sense of separation and embarrassment is not exclusive to issues of mental health, the emotive resonance of this work is fitting within the topic’s scope.
HaeJin Park, The Night My Daughter Discovered Our Family’s Legacy Of Depression
It was the title of this artwork that drew my attention to the subject matter. Prior to reading it I had paid little attention to the watercolour piece, seeing swirling organic shapes rather than actual abstract figures.
Having spent more time deconstructing the forms in the image I believe that this entire piece is depicting the mindset of a single person. The daughter’s mind is shown in four levels of thought, ranging from untouched innocence and freedom of thought, to the deepest and darkest depths of her depression. I believe the darkest thoughts are depicted as the largest because they are the most uncontrollable, with the greatest impact on her daily life. Size could also be seen as an indication of frequency, implying that she now rarely has days free of the grip of her illness. The only form with a sense of identity is that of the smallest figure, who appears to have a long feminine haircut. This choice by Park, to me, represents a sense of selflessness in the midst of her illness. My understanding is that the persona can only truly feel like herself with the dark thoughts are kept at bay.
Zoe-Emma, Puppet Master
Zoe-Emma practice as an illustrator stems from her desire to visualise the day-to-day processes of her life through the scope of her mental illness. There are two distinct humanoid personas within her work; the multi-eyed figure representing mental illness made manifest, and the one-eyed person who suffers from the illness.
As she typically depicts them, the two personas are identical in height and weight, although here their forms are partially overlapped. This visual, in combination with the title ‘We Are One’ is particularly poignant, emphasising the blurred distinction at times between self and illness, conscious and subconscious thought, choice and compulsion, rationality and anxiety.
I find her choice to solely use black and white in her illustrations quite effective in conveying the fact that these works represent the truths of her life. A viewer’s interpretation is his or her own, but these works are first and foremost an opportunity for Zoe-Emma to express her personal experiences. Suffering from mental illness is such an individual and distinct experience; no two sufferers have identical fears, anxieties, triggers or strategies. Thus it is fair to say that the origins of her illustrations lie in a world of black and white truth.
Lets Talk About Mental Illness
These images are taken from the Instagram account for a project focused on opening up discussions about the realities of mental illness. Curated by Jessica Walsh, Lets Talk About Mental Illness is an offshoot of the original project ‘12 Kinds of Kindness’ started by Walsh in collaboration with Timothy Goodman.
What attracted me most to this pair, and indeed the entire Instagram account, is the lack of doom and gloom that is typically used to convey mental health. The fact that those who suffer from mental health issues are considered ‘other’ from the norm is often emphasised through a distinct difference in typical visuals used to discuss the topic. This account is filled with vibrant pops of clashing colours and crude illustrations, presenting these statements without adornment or implied negativity. They are simple there to be taken as the viewer will. When reading this image my response was simply “Yup. True that.” which is a refreshingly uncomplicated moment of appreciating another person’s recognition of the truths of my life.
Honker has created this photographic series depicting his personal experience with depression and anxiety in the hope that an honest and open conversation can begin on mental health issues.
There is a frantic energy in this photograph. The digital distortion of the persona’s face conveys a state of ceaseless, erratic, incoherent thought. Furthermore, the persona is standing calm and erect, looking polished and refined in their best suit, a vision of sophistication and competence. These two profoundly conflicting visuals disturb society’s assumption that to look okay is to be okay. Honker is compelling his viewers to consider the reality of mental illness; an individual may be suffering greatly within, whilst still maintaining the expected (or demanded) respectable presence without. Essentially, appearances are no judgment of substance or health.
The persona in this work is almost entirely submerged in a bath filled with an opaque liquid, effectively cutting them off from the physical and sensory world around them. Each of these elements can be seen to symbolise the isolation felt by sufferers as they struggle to function within a society that covets perfection. Furthermore, this could be symbolic of the disconnect felt from their own thoughts and senses.
The visual minimalism of this photograph places the focus on the sensation of being submerged and without any connection to the world beyond. There is a complete absence of energy or movement. A state of inescapable apathy is seen in the figure, whose gaze is not only submerged, but also averted. They have no wish to make eye contact with the viewer.
This series of photographs is not about detailing the economic cost of mental health on communities, nor does it relay any information about statistics, causes or treatments. Honker has purely captured moments that attempt to visually represent his own state of mental and emotional distress and disorder. The photographs provoke raw, emotive responses in the viewer, thus prompting discussions on the reality of living with mental health issues.
Cambria, D. 2015, ‘I See Our Enemies’, Ignant, viewed 23 October 2015, <http://www.ignant.de/submissions/davide-cambria/>
Emin, T. 1998, My Bed, Tracey Emin Studio, viewed 9 August 2016, <http://www.traceyeminstudio.com/artworks/1998/02/my-bed-1998-3/>
Harris, H. n.d., Print, booooooom, viewed 8 August 2016, <http://www.booooooom.com/2012/06/05/artist-painter-henrietta-harris/>
Harris, H. n.d., Your Tomorrow, booooooom, viewed 8 August 2016, <http://www.booooooom.com/2012/06/05/artist-painter-henrietta-harris/>
Honaker, E. 2015, Ignant, viewed 24 September 2015, <http://www.ignant.de/2015/09/24/photographer-edward-honaker-documents-his-own-depression/>
Jablotschkin, E. 2013, ‘Blurred Lines by Adam Lupton’, Ignant, 12 November, viewed8 August 3026, <http://www.ignant.de/2013/11/12/blurred-lines-by-adam-lupton/>
Lets Talk About Mental Illness 2016a, ‘I felt too much until one day when I felt nothing’, Instagram, viewed 23 August 2016, <https://www.instagram.com/p/BJNipNPBlWZ/>
Lets Talk About Mental Illness 2016b, ‘Sometimes I’m just lost inside my own mind’, Instagram, February 20, viewed 15 August 2016, <https://www.instagram.com/p/BCAFdJgth4F/>
Lupton, A. 2013, ‘The Only Way Out Is In’, Ignant, viewed 8 August 2016, <http://www.ignant.de/2013/11/12/blurred-lines-by-adam-lupton/>
Park, H. n.d. ‘The Night My Daughter Discovered Our Family’s Legacy of Depression’, HaeJin Park, viewed 16 August 2016, <http://www.haejinart.com/#!narratively/s7fs2>
Zoe-Emma n.d., We Are One, Dazed Digital, viewed 30 August 2016, <http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/29416/1/exploring-mental-health-through-illustration>
– Alexandra Macoustra