Dr Maria Quinlan, Sociologist at University College Dublin, writes for us on using photovoice to explore the complexities of mental health, and to challenge people to ‘Look Beyond’ the often negative labels associated with mental health difficulty. Maria is a PhotoVoice trainee, earlier this year we delivered bespoke training at the University College Dublin. To find out more about our training for academic institutions please click here.
What does it feel like to experience an acute mental health crisis, or to live for decades with a chronic mental health condition? – and what can people do to help themselves or others to survive and thrive following a mental health crisis? In this project we set out to explore these questions using photovoice as a tool to enlighten and unlock the complex multi-layered phenomenon of mental health.
See Change are a national organisation in Ireland tasked with reducing stigma surrounding mental illness. As part of their efforts to do this they asked me to conduct a piece of research which would engage people who have experienced mental health difficulties, allowing their voices to be heard and their experiences to be shared. Photovoice has a long and rich tradition as a research method which can do exactly this, with its roots in social activism and its objective to influence positive social change, we felt it was an ideal way of giving voice to people who have experienced mental health difficulties and of engaging with policy makers and the wider society on the issue of mental health.
As someone whose research philosophy is rooted in a feminist tradition which rejects the notion of researcher as ‘expert’, I believe photovoice is a hugely useful method for capturing knowledge which is grounded in people’s lived experience. Each participant is the expert on their own journey and in this project they shared their deep insight and wisdom into firstly what experiencing mental health difficulties felt like for them and secondly what has helped them in their recovery.
Working with sixteen people who have experienced various forms of mental health difficulties, myself and my colleague Dr Etain Quigley from Maynooth University facilitated weekly workshops where the participants explored the issue through group discussion and photography exercises. A trained mental health professional also sat in on the workshops so that participants could be fully-supported throughout the process. Photography has long been used by mental health professionals a tool to enhance the therapeutic process, and participants on our project expressed that the group discussion coupled with the use of photographs as a means of communicating feelings was a very positive and cathartic experience for them.
In total the groups took close to 250 photos and chose over 90 to caption and share as part of this project. The images and captions are powerful, moving and evocative. Many of the images and accompanying captions depict viscerally what it feels like to go through a mental health crisis – images of being squashed, wrung-out, and gripped, images of dark rooms and shut doors, and of blurred distorted reality give us an understanding of what it might feel like to live with depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.
Mental illness exhausts you emotionally and physically and isolates you from those around you. It leaves you behind, fatigued, feeling like a shell of your former self. As one participant puts it “I just wasn’t there”.
The images and captions describing what has helped in terms of recovery are uplifting and encouraging in their simplicity – being close to nature, having a beloved pet, reading, walking, connecting with others. Hope of recovery and a deep sense of their own resilience and ability to come through bouts of mental health difficulty is expressed throughout the photographs. As one participant says “There’s always hope. The way is not always clear but there is a way out of despair and loneliness.”
Look Beyond was launched in Dublin’s Smock Alley in October, with an exhibition of photos and a panel discussion with the participants, researchers and mental health professionals. The exhibition has since toured the country and will continue to be exhibited nationally throughout 2018. The reach and impact that the project has already had, for both those who took part and for those who have viewed the exhibition has been significant – it has sparked debate, pride, empathy and a deeper understanding.
Working with the men and women who took part in this project was hugely illuminating and rewarding – they have travelled a road which has presented them with complex mental health challenges, and have generously shared their experiences with us. The photovoice method allowed for a collaborative, co-created project which put the true experts at the centre of the research process.