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Images of mental health: how do we tell stories without stigma and stereotypes?

The images shortlisted for the Wellcome Photography Prize 2020 told rich, nuanced stories about living with and recovering from mental health problems.   

A man holding two flippers stands in a hotel room overgrown with rose bushes

This image is part of a series called 'Prozac'. At an abandoned resort in Sharm El Sheik, the photographer found this ruined hotel, overgrown with rose bushes. He posed as a tourist wanting to enjoy the resort but finding only collapse.

Credit:

Arseniy Neskhodimov / Wellcome Photography Prize 2020

Attribution, Non-Commercial CC BY-NC

Mental health was the main theme of the Wellcome Photography Prize 2020. We invited photographers to capture visual stories which go beyond stigma and stereotypes; stories that show experiences of living with and recovering from mental health challenges.   

Arseniy Neskhodimov did just that, with honesty and humour, winning the overall prize and the mental health series category with his 'Prozac' series. "My self-portraits are a kind of therapy that help me fight off the attacks of despair and loss of meaning, especially in this difficult pandemic time," he said.  

We asked colleagues at Wellcome what their favourite shortlisted images were and why. Here’s what they said. 

A man's legs poke out from underneath a pile of Christmas trees

Moscow, Russia, and Sharm El Sheik, Egypt, 2018–19 

In his parents’ basement, he lies buried under a pile of Christmas trees that were briefly admired but then thrown away, no longer wanted. This is how the new year begins for them – with all the potential of their life wasted. 

Credit:

 Arseniy Neskhodimov / Wellcome Photography Prize 2020

Licence: Attribution, Non-Commercial CC BY-NC

Cat Sebastian, Evidence Lead, Mental Health: "The juxtaposition of humour and despair drew me to this series, the sense that even at his lowest point the photographer is wryly observing and commenting on his reactions. 

The holiday theme resonates with a key aspect of depression, of not being able to find pleasure in enjoyable and previously enjoyed activities. In this series, the photographer is in turns too sad, too anxious, too late, too encumbered by self-reflection to live in the moment and enjoy: wherever he is, he’s still there. But I sense some hope in these images too, of striving to find his own path to recovery."

A woman wearing a swimming cap swims in cold water with her eyes closed

River Spey, Scotland, UK, 2019

Nina swims in cold water every day to reduce her anxiety and severe depression. She wants to avoid using medication, and this swimming gives her a way to gain confidence and energy. 'It makes all my senses feel alive no matter how dead inside I feel going in. I notice natural life, the seasons and the weather, the way the water is moving around me, and importantly it makes me feel like I am actually capable and can achieve amazing things.'

Swimming in near-freezing water may seem an unlikely way to treat a mental health problem, but there’s some evidence that it can be beneficial. Research is still in the early stages, and scientists speculate that it’s not just an invigorating experience – repeated exposure to the cold water may produce longer-term physiological changes that could ease depression and anxiety. And no prescriptions or waiting lists are needed.

Credit:

Tom Merilion / Wellcome Photography Prize 2020

Licence: Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivative Works CC BY-NC-ND

Cristina Doherty, Graduate Trainee: "This picture really encapsulates the way in which people living with anxiety and depression find ways to manage their experiences. I can feel the icy coldness of the water while looking at it, which feels calming and energising at the same time for me.  

Nina appears utterly present in the moment, although the distorted reflection highlights disjuncture between this moment and beneath the surface."

A man sits in his room with his feet up on a paint bucket to avoid the floodwater

Lagos, Nigeria, 2019

A resident sits in his room with his feet up on a paint bucket to avoid the floodwater. 

Credit:

Nyancho NwaNri / Wellcome Photography Prize 2020

Licence: All Rights Reserved

Ed Whiting, Director of Strategy: "I found this picture by Nyancho NwaNri particularly powerful in illustrating the huge impact that extreme weather can have on our physical and mental health. 

We are thinking a lot at Wellcome about how we can help to tackle big health challenges. One thing that we’ve been acutely aware of, particularly in this Covid-19 world, is the way that these challenges – for example infectious diseases, mental health and climate change – so often intersect. 

I thought the photo captured that reality beautifully, and with it, the wider point that our own mental health appears to be so intimately affected and determined by our environment, and it isn’t just about the biological processes of our brain." 

A father dressed as an astronaut floats and is tethered to his daughter who is sitting looking at her phone

Manchester, UK, 2018

Benji Reid suffers from long bouts of depression, and after a particularly difficult period he created this image as a 'love note' to his daughter for being there in his time of need. Both of them are engaged in acts of escapism – her mundanely, through her phone, and him fantastically, as a 'broken astronaut', floating up into the air. But he’s tethered to her, and the simple, comforting fact of her presence keeps him in the real world.

Depression is common, which means that having a close relative who’s depressed is even more common. The condition may feel isolating, but it’s not an individual experience. Family members can feel worry, fear and gloom themselves, and they may find themselves becoming unofficial carers. But you do what you can for the people you love. Supportive relationships can be literally lifesaving.

Credit:

Benji Reid / Wellcome Photography Prize 2020

Licence: Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivative Works CC BY-NC-ND

Grace Gatera, Lived Experience Expert Advisor: "This image is very relatable for someone who struggles regularly with depression and has had suicidal thoughts. We all need tethers, and just like Benji in the photograph, mine are my family. 

I like that this picture depicts rawness, but also raw tenderness. I like that this is not a typical ‘head clutcher’ shot, as it humanizes both subjects in raw and honest ways. This shows to me that young people are the key, which is something Wellcome’s mental health work echoes in its programmes, and that they hold an infinite amount of power, even though they may not know that they do."

Portrait of a young woman next to the items in her mental health kit - spray paint, law book, medical glue, brush cloth, swimsuit, video controller, screwdriver, medication, knife and goddess figure

Moscow, Russia, 2019

Ksusha has bipolar disorder. She works as a computer technician at a liberal political party. Her hobbies are ice-hole diving and artistic makeup.

Credit:

Sebastian Mar / Wellcome Photography Prize 2020

Licence: Attribution, Non-Commercial CC BY-NC

Miranda Wolpert, Director of Mental Health: "These images [from Sebastian Mar's 'Mental Health Kit' series] really resonated with me because they speak to the specificity of individual responses, and the creativity and strength of individuals in the face of mental health problems.  

When I worked as a clinical psychologist, the thing that struck me the most was how people coped with really challenging issues and circumstances. These kits speak to the powerful mix of vulnerability and strength that most of us have. The images are relatable to everyone, everywhere. Perhaps we should all map out our own mental health first aid kit (albeit not with such creative skill)."

Special thanks to Charlotte Payne for collating these quotes. 

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