What does mental illness look like? The head clutcher

31 May
The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1895

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1895

Once you start to notice them, they seem to be everywhere: the head clutcher. What are they? Not the image above, The Scream, an iconic portrayal of human misery, which has been much copied and parodied. Instead, they are stock pictures trotted out to illustrate media stories with a mental health angle, typically showing someone with their head in their hands.

I’ve tweeted about them before and, last week, I started to do so using the hashtag #headclutcher after seeing one stock photo (below right) appear in 3 separate media stories in the same day! Poor woman.

Head clutcher woman - she's popular with the press

Head clutcher woman – she’s popular with the press

In this blog post, I’ve drawn together what others have written about the head clutcher, including the blog by tweeter @Huwtube. After seeing my #headclutcher tweets, he wrote an hilarious post entitled The Rise of the Headclutcher, critiquing various such shots. It’s well worth checking out if you want a laugh.

Of course the serious side of this is that using stock head clutcher photos perpetuates an image in the public mind of what mental distress looks like. And, if you don’t meet that stereotype, well clearly you’re not deserving of help.

I’ve commented on this before (here) and I’ve experienced this myself. I can appear confident and cheerful and this counted against me in an Atos medical assessment (for eligibility for state sickness benefits): after checking I could touch my toes and reach overhead, the assessor noted in his written report that, because I had made eye contact, I must be fine. No mental health problems whatsoever. Perhaps if I’d spent the assessment with my head in my hands I’d have met with his expectations of what mental illness looks like and scored more than the zero points I was awarded.

As national anti-stigma campaign Time to Change says (in its guidance to journalists on choosing images to accompany stories with a mental health angle), “Some really strong stories that may include great content and have educational value can be weakened by the use of an inappropriate image”. We can do better. We should do better. We must do better.

Check out the links below for more examples of head clutcher shots, together with others’ blogs on the subject. And, if you come across more head clutcher shots or other stereotypical representations of mental illness in the media, please feel free to add them in the comments below.

Happy head clutching!

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web links 5.

My head clutcher Storify stories (with links):

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Links to others’ stories on the head clutcher and other media representations of mental illness:

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Media guidance:Head clutcher Simpsons The Scream

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Other stories about the use of stock photos:

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Mainstream media stories illustrated by head clutcher pictures (often the same one):

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Headclutchers in stories by other commentators:

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11 Responses to “What does mental illness look like? The head clutcher”

  1. Dawn Willis 31 May 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    Reblogged this on Dawn Willis .

  2. Dawn 31 May 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    So many mental health professionals use appearance as a diagnostic tool in its own right that can override other evidence. I have seen a letter from a psychiatrist I saw saying I ‘did not appear depressed’ yet in the same session I was totally honest with him about my constant suicidal ideation at the time. Mental illness can look smart, holding-it-together, and it can even smile, and therein lies its deadliness to those who choose only to look at the surface.

  3. Lee 26 November 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    I work for a mental health organisation and a part of my job is designing leaflets, posters and webpages etc on MH topics, so I’d like to throw in my thoughts from the other side on this.

    We always do our best to create a balanced picture of MH – we produce lots of materials with positive images, and our publicity stuff generally aims for a very positive tone.

    However there are occasions when it just isn’t appropriate to use a positive image; sometimes you may be writing a piece where including a picture of a happy smiling person could actually be seen as a little bit insulting to the reader.

    So what’s the solution? Well, I suppose you could say don’t include an image, but the reality of how modern media works is that you will ALWAYS be required to provide an image to accompany a story. There needs to be an alternative.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with your point overall – the Headclutcher pictures that appear over and over in the press are cliched and horrible, and more often than not, the product of ignorance or thoughtlessness.

    But I think it needs to be said that sometimes, you do need an image that conveys negative emotions – just not necessarily one so crass as the poor lady who keeps appearing on the sites above!

    Personally, I think that the message on this should be to avoid overly negative images where they aren’t needed, and use a bit of subtlety and judgement when you do have to use them.

    • Colin 23 November 2014 at 2:34 pm #

      So, the options are a happy smiling person or a head clutcher ? Its a shame you don’t have any pictures of something in between like a person who doesn’t look particularly happy.

  4. kw 27 May 2014 at 9:54 am #

    I agree with your point that mental illness can be invisible, but I don’t think photographs like this are really meant to be taken literally. Stock photos typically express a theme or emotion, which is portrayed through body language. (Also, note that it’s not as though the lady in the above image is out in public–she is alone, which expresses how isolating depression can make us feel, and also that the suffering is often private.)

    Personally, I relate to the head clutcher. I don’t find it stigmatising at all. It is a pretty tame representation of what I have gone through with bipolar disorer (the crying with my head in my hands I do now, is preferable to the rage, utter numbness, and paranoia I used to experience). And really, the head clutcher expresses how I feel about mental illness in general–overwhelmed and saddened.

    But then, even though I was one of those who couldn’t keep up appearances (yeah, I basically stopped showering), I have had days where I seemed “normal” to others. So I do fully agree that there needs to be more awareness of how hidden these illnesses can be.

    • Sectioned 31 May 2014 at 10:20 am #

      It seems from what you’re saying that, so long as the story is about you personally, head clutcher shots will be appropriate as they represent how you feel. Your vote of 1 is noted. Time to Change recognises that they aren’t always appropriate, however.

      • kw 8 June 2014 at 4:24 pm #

        I read the bit from Time to Change, and FULLY agree that images from movies about insanity, and those which depict self-harm are completely inappropriate for articles about mental illness.

        I also agree that images should be chosen with careful consideration of the content of the article.

        I do not feel that all articles written about mental illness need to represent me. I am, as you said, just one. While there are others like me, people with mental illness come from diverse backgrounds, and have dealt with their conditions in equally diverse ways. Mental illness is not the head clutcher, but the head clutcher may be one of the mentally ill.

        The head clutcher is not appropriate for all articles, and because we need to see a lot more articles representing our diversity of experience, hopefully we will see her less.

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