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Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Head Clutching Headlines: Let's Change the Picture

One of the many other people (I think of them as friends, though they don't know me, nor I them, and we've never met except on Twitter) who tweet about mental health (their own and in general), @sectioned_, recently posted about the phenomenon of the #'headclutcher' photograph that so often accompanies mental health news. You've seen them before: a picture of a woman or man looking down and holding their head in their hands. This is often the image that is printed alongside such articles if the subject is mental health in general, rather than a specific issue such as having an eating disorder (cue photos of scales or magazines with size zero models on their pages) or self-harming (cue photos of scarred arms).

This man must be depressed. He can't do anything, in fact, because his hands are glued to his face.

I was recently profiled in an article about the January Blues and luckily they used a picture of someone staring out of a window rather than clutching their head. But still, I don't gaze out of windows all day, every day. And if you're my employer reading this, then, seriously, I don't do that all day, every day. Because I am working and getting on with things! The only time I look out of the window is to confirm that, yes, it is still January, still cold, still dark, still damp, and that it would be much better to stay inside where it's nice and cosy.

Window gazing. You can read the article on the January blues here.

I have been feeling very up and down recently, but I have not once held my head in my hands over the last couple of weeks. I may have stayed in bed watching The Good Wife (which is very good, by the way. They should consider renaming it The Good Good Wife), I may have gone to the shops without makeup because I couldn't be bothered to make any effort to look good, or I may have travelled to a lunch with friends made up and looking smart and just about as un-depressed as any image of me could seem.

The Good wife. It's really good. And what a poker face.

Appearances are deceptive though. I felt dreadfully ill recently when I went and met friends, and barely made it through the afternoon with the constant taste of metal and nausea that anxiety brings, coupled with the terrible lurch in my stomach of dread of being discovered or not discovered in my wretched state of un-wellness. I think all I want when I feel depressed is to not want to feel depressed. It's boring for one thing, but on the other hand, as @_sectioned and others have put it, once people know I'm depressed I don't know what to do with myself in their company.

Another headclutcher. And he doesn't have any furniture either. How awful.

People try to make helpful suggestions about getting exercise and looking after myself - and these are all the right things to be doing. However, at my lowest ebb I just cannot take any advice because I'm already having enough problems breathing in and out and not favouring the thought that if I didn't wake up tomorrow that would be a lot better than if I did and had to endure another day of this interminable sadness and despondency.

"Why the mustard, why?"

The problem worsens in company where there is a need to make some sort of decision about how to be seen. I remember Alastair Campbell, again, recalling a colleague who told him something like "You're always laughing, you can't be depressed" or near enough. Gladly, Baroness Jolly (you've got to laugh at this, really, haven't you?) recently debated on behalf of the government on the issue mental health. But Parliament couldn't quite resist the opportunity to post its news alongside the above picture of a man who, in my opinion, is merely clutching his head to get away from the dreadful taste of whomever decided mustard was a good colour scheme for a room. And then Baroness went on her way back to being a character from the Mister Men.

Little Miss Baroness Jolly

If we apply this to other life experiences rather than illnesses, and, again I turn to the Good Wife, but you can choose your own example, what are people supposed to look like in a certain state? A woman whose husband has been unfaithful to her but has to stand in the public eye supporting him. What is that supposed to look like? Is she supposed to look stern / serious but well turned out? I suppose so. And I suppose that when she does the trash magazines will have headlines that call her 'Brave' and 'Putting on a Brave Face' whereas when she's taking the bins out and can't be bothered to change out of her pyjamas and slippers, or put makeup on she's 'Struggling' or 'In Crisis'.

"Pammy Loses It" versus "Pammy Gets New Tits"

So, what, does that mean that when I feel like laughing I should suppress it, and when I feel like crying I should be sure to go out into the world so everyone can see the tears running down my face? I don't think that's going to get me any promotions at work, but it's also not realistic. I am not crying all the time. (And when I am, no one sees me apart from my husband, because there's a part of my subconscious which radically co-opts every ounce of adrenaline within me to not cry in front of other people when I'm really feeling at my very worst.) I'm probably not smiling all the time, but who is, apart from clowns with painted faces (whom we all know are scary to most people!). What I am doing, as I've said before, is just going through the motions.

I participated in a Time to Change survey on whether people think #headclutcher images are helpful in presenting mental health sufferers accurately. You can probably guess what I thought. Read more about what they're doing here.

"Not only am I depressed, I'm stuck in a yoga pose I can't get out of. Sob."

But I'm not clutching my head. How would I be typing this blog or going to work, washing my face, eating, dressing, if I had to do that all day? Really. I'm not clutching my head. I'm just feeling rubbish. Or not. You can't tell. No one can. And maybe I don't want you to know anyway.


  1. what a wonderful post. thank you for starting an honest dialogue about this important and often misunderstood topic

    1. Thank you GlutenFreeHappyTummy :) for this post. Mental illness is not only misunderstood by people who have no direct or indirect experience of it; it is also an area where medicine and treatment are still very embryonic. There is much work still to be done. I really appreciate your comment and taking the time to read the post. I hope you will keep in touch with the blog. All the best, Jessica

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