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Why your next photo could change the way we think about mental health

By: Bill Way | October 2018

Black and white image of side of barn 

 The focus is not on the photograph itself, but rather the meaning the individual assigns to it. The photograph is significant because it makes the internal self observable to oneself and to others.” (Stevens & Spears, 2009, p. 6; Above, “Branching Out ” by Bill Way) 

“How do you start talking about depression and anxiety? How do you tell someone you’re struggling?” 

Bryce Evans’ opening words from the TEDx Stage invite perspective-taking. 

Globally, it has been estimated that some 1.11 billion individuals face mental health or substance abuse challenges; but to open up about these experiences, Evans continues, is not easy. Fearing stigma and judgment, he buried his inner struggles behind the guise, “I’m fine”.

“These words became my walls,” he recalls, “my one lie that defied my entire existence.”

Evans would eventually find positive momentum from an unlikely source: his camera.

“Looking through a new lens allowed me to see the world differently,” he says. “It opened my perspective from the narrow view that I was stuck in, it allowed me to calm my mind and focus externally.”

While taking pictures and framing the world as he saw it, Evans felt the weight of depression beginning to lift as he could gradually express more and more of what he was going through. “I was beginning to get my voice back,” he recalls.

With trepidation, Evans eventually started to share his photos and reflections with others. In doing so, he found support – and to his surprise – others who could relate to what he was going through. These transformative experiences ultimately led him to found The One Project, a global, online community that uses therapeutic photography techniques to connect and support thousands of individuals working through their own mental health challenges. 

Apertures and Attitudes

On the heels of this year’s national Mental Illness Awareness Week, it is recognized that ongoing efforts are needed to end stigma and improve attitudes about mental health. By using photographs to generate awareness and shift the stigmatized narrative of mental health, Evans’ approach is poised for impact in a media-savvy era.

“Every day over one billion photos are shared online, and I believe we are standing on top of a massive opportunity to change how we see and talk about mental health,” he says. “Everyone knows how to take a photo…and it’s one of our most common forms of communication.”

Over the past decade, photo-based initiatives to promote mental health awareness have been gaining steam. For example, other online groups like the Broken Light Collective aim to provide support as well as outreach, education, and advocacy. Further, community-based projects and portrait exhibits, such as Lissy Thomas’ I Am More: Facing Stigma, Mariangela Abeo’s Faces of Fortitude, and the Photography x Mental Health initiative are garnering interest from larger metropolitan venues.

Across these initiatives, photographs become the medium through which people draw attention to mental health topics, open up about and destigmatize their own experiences, or challenge the societal discourse that surrounds mental health. The point, Thomas says, “is to make it OK for people to talk about their mental health the same way you’d talk about your physical health…It’s OK to have whatever issue you have. It doesn’t define you.”

Mental health challenges do not define individuals. On the contrary, it can often be helpful for individuals to define and reflectively process their mental health challenges. In this regard, photography offers a unique medium.

Visuals over Verbiage

In a video produced for the #MoreThanAnImage series, Daniel Regan shares about how taking photos helped him to define, express, and lean into his struggles with anxiety. “I got into photography around the age of 12, when I started to have mental health problems,” he says. “It became a language that I could use to start to explore things that were very confusing.”

Sunset image with spindly tree

“Every snapshot has stories to tell, secrets to share, and memories to bring forth, if only it is asked” (Weiser, 2004, p. 27; Above, “Vulnerability and Growth” by Bill Way).

As the tired saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words; but as Regan soon found, photos offered something qualitatively different than words.

“When you are having mental health difficulties there are not words available to describe how you feel. Art and visual language can kind of fill in the gaps in where language is missing.”

Whether the camera is a smartphone, an old Polaroid, or a top of the line DSLR, the capacity to capture images that move beyond words is accessible to all. “People think that they need to be a really great photographer,” Regan points out, “but it’s really not about the end result, it is about the process.”

Pixels to Process

Adding to the personal accounts that Evans and Regan share, there is some scientific evidence to support arts-based approaches to healing, and mental health professionals have been incorporating therapeutic photography into their practice for years. While much of this work has focused on using photography to work through mental health challenges, there is also research to suggest that taking intentional and reflective photos can promote emotional wellness among college students before mental health challenges arise. Wherever you find your mental health today, consider some of the suggestions below for how you can use photography to process your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. ( While these suggestions are inspired by scholarly and peer-reviewed resources, they are not medical advice and are not a substitute for the care that can be provided by a licensed mental health practitioner.)

Capture a purposeful pic.
Where do you find a sense of meaning and purpose in life? What are the core personal values that guide your journey through life? Try taking some photos that symbolically depict these values and sources of meaning/purpose. You might even put these photos someplace where you will see them as reminders on a regular basis (e.g., a background on your laptop, a printed picture on your desk, etc.).

Frame your feelings. Notice the full spectrum of emotions that you feel today. Capture some images that help you express what you feel and why. If you feel led to do so, try journaling about these images and emotions, or use them as conversation starters with a trusted friend or family member.

plant in foreground, bending in the wind

"Bend, Don't Break" by Bill Way 

Snap more than a chat. Send someone a photo and message that conveys what you appreciate about them and/or what they mean in your life. If someone close to you is going through a difficult time, send them a photo and message to provide encouragement or emotional support.

Take some selfies for yourself. Over the span of a few weeks or a semester, take some fun, creative selfies. Instead of sharing them online, use them as journal prompts. What features of yourself do you really like? Can you accept and appreciate your other unique features? As you do this, be mindful of the language you use about yourself… would you say those things to your best friend? After a few weeks or months have passed, spend some time reviewing your selfies. What changes do you notice in them over time? What did your selfies communicate about you when you started? What do they communicate about you now?

Dust off an old photo album. Psychologist and art therapist Judy Weiser once referred to photographs as “mirrors with memory” that reflect people, places, things, and events that mattered. Set aside some time to look through and reflect on your old photographs. As you explore your thoughts about these photos, you might consider things like:

  • H ow did this photo come to be taken?
  • What thoughts, memories, or feelings come to mind when you view this photo?
  • What might the photo ask or say if it could speak? Do you want to tell or ask it something?
  • If at all, how might the moment captured in a photo impact you today?

A window to wellness. Get creative and think about other ways in which you can use photography to support your mental health and holistic self-care. For example, try cooking a healthy, seasonal meal and take a picture of your colorful culinary creation; or use an old vacation photo to stimulate some relaxing mental imagery during a quiet moment between classes.

No one needs to struggle alone. If you find yourself struggling today, or are concerned about someone close to you, the WVU Carruth Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services is here for you. The Carruth Center offers a range of mental health services, including individual and group counseling , substance abuse counseling , psychiatry and medication management services, as well as specialized services for academic and cognitive enhancement.

Feel free to give us a call (304-293-4431) to learn more about our services or to schedule an appointment. In the event of an urgent concern, we offer drop-in hours Monday through Friday from 8:15 AM-3:00 PM. 

During the hours of 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM, only drop-ins experiencing a psychological or psychiatric crisis will be seen.

Students arriving after 3:00 PM who are not experiencing a psychological or psychiatric crisis may be asked to schedule an appointment for the following day..

If you or someone else is experiencing a potentially life threatening situation and is in need of immediate attention, call either  911  or the University Police Department at  304-293-COPS (2677) .

Bill Way

Bill is a 4th year student in the combined Ph.D. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology / M.A. Clinical Mental Health Counseling at WVU. He is a supervised trainee at the Carruth Center, where he provides personal and substance abuse counseling services. Outside of Carruth, he delivers mental skills consultations for athletes and exercisers through the WVU Lifetime Activities Program. Photography has been an important part of his self-care and personal growth since he was in high school. He has presented about the application of photography in counseling and sport psychology at AASP and WVLPCA conferences.

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