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Mental health portrayal: it’s not all about head clutching

What does someone dealing with mental illness look like?

Written by Úna-Minh Kavanagh | View this authors Twitter page and posted in opinion

This is an opinion of a young person and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of It is one person's experience and may be different for you. If you'd like to write something for please contact

"I feel like there’s a more serious side to promoting the head clutching image as the norm"

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It’s a curious thing the head clutcher. I’m sure you’ve seen them before, those stock images that are attached to pieces about mental illness and once you start to notice them, they’re everywhere. These days, an image of a person with their head in their hands, a person alone with their back against a wall seems to be how we envisage mental health.

Though the intention of writing an educational piece or highlighting positive mental health may be there, this can often be overlooked by inappropriate imagery.

Head to Google and type; “mental illness”, “depression”, “anxiety” or “disorder” and you’ll get reams of images of head clutching people – often women – peeping through their fingers or gnawing at their knuckles. Mental health can be a broad thing to try and illustrate but for me, I feel like there’s a more serious side to promoting the head clutching image as the norm.

Pictures can be just as damaging as words and these images perpetuate the view that this is the kind of anguish you need to be going through before you’re deemed mentally unwell and deserving of help. All of us will probably experience a mental health issue in our lives and the reality is that you could be smiling every day and still feel down.

You can be posting on social media about how great your life is or how grateful you are, whereas in truth you could be actually sending out desperate pleas for help. It’s not all about the head though, called “mental health”, it often takes a grab hold of your physical self too. When I’m feeling down often my body feels heavy, my energy is sapped and I feel like I’m carrying weight. In my darkest hours I could seem “normal”.

I don’t think I’ve ever clasped my head with my hands and I really do think that there is a problem with the standard approach we use to photograph mental health issues. I know that some photo editors struggle with alternatives but consider this idea: If interviewing someone who’s sharing their experience, consider asking them how they’d like to be portrayed. Their answer may surprise you.

I’d also imagine that it would be pretty extraordinary to find written in a journalist’s notes, “xxx clutched their head during interview”.

Can we change the images we use to portray people with mental health issues? Because this is what a person who’s dealing with the ups and downs of life really looks like:

Selfie of Una Minh Kavanagh

Úna-Minh Kavanagh: C
Depression doesn’t define me and a head clutcher certainly isn’t a portrayal of who I am. We can do better.

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Published January 22nd, 2015
Last updated October 1st, 2015
Tags mental health
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