Me, my mental health and my photography

 Boardwalk man © Greg Vivash 

Boardwalk man © Greg Vivash 

I have been involved in photography for many, many years. Most people, who know me, are aware that I am passionate and dedicated to the medium. What quite a few people probably don’t know is that I have a mental illness. I suffer badly from anxiety and depression. You’ll note that I clearly stated ‘mental illness’. For a few seconds, I hesitated to use that term. Mainly, because my inner pride tried to stop me but also because some people feel it’s too strong a label for anxiety and depression.

My experience of anxiety and depression goes back some way, around twenty years or so. I believe some of the foundations of it, are from my school days. Although a fair deal of it may have come from some pretty big life events. I can imagine, some of those whom I have worked with over the years are probably saying, “Who knew...he looked OK to me” Therein lies the rub. I don’t have a plaster cast on me; wear an eye patch or any other obvious visible clues to my condition. For the most part, I would have hoped my general demeanour seemed pretty ordinary. Now, that’s the thing for many anxious people. We are actors/performers. Our outer brave shell hides an inner critical, self deprecating and sometimes crumbling self-confidence. For me, the stronger the anxiety, the harder I have to work to hide my feelings to the world. It’s like on the outside, I’m a peacock, strutting around with unruffled plumage but inside, I’m running around like a turkey in a slaughterhouse! Sometimes, it gets out of hand and it results in a panic attack. For those of you whom have never had a major panic attack, I can tell you, it’s one of the most debilitating and scariest experiences you can ever have. A tremendous feeling of guilt, low self worth, even deep depression, often follows it. This is mainly because you feel weak, both mentally and physically, frustrated, that you were not in control and disappointed, because you want to feel stronger and be rid of these horrible feelings.

Coping with Anxiety and depression

First and foremost, there is no magic ‘one size fits all’ solution. Like many, I have taken advice from medics and counsellors. A combination of medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has helped. I have to try hard to remind my self of the techniques I have learned. It is certainly not a case of do a course of CBT and you’re cured. It’s like learning a language; you need to keep practicing it. One key piece of advice that I’ve read so many times, is to divert your mind from the negative thinking patterns and keep your mind busy. Do something that you enjoy. Give your mind chance escape the negativity. We live in a competitive fast paced world. We also have our own personal worries, be they health, relationships or money. I’ve got my fair share of troubles and I wish they’d go away. But the way I think about these troubles is the root cause of my anxiety and depression.

How photography helps me

I enjoy music and reading, but my outlet is my photography. I’ve been smitten by the photography bug since I was 12 years old. Since then, I qualified and I practice professionally and yes, that’s another challenge to my mood, as getting work isn’t easy.  I am competitive and I want to get my work recognised. To be honest it’s a fine line, as I do beat myself up about my successes (or lack of them!)  However, like most creatives, it’s a passion and it costs nothing to keep the creative mind active and developing it further. So, as much as I can, I do photography for my own well being. When I am out with my camera, I am in the moment. I am practicing Mindfulness. To be more specific, as I am walking around, I am constantly looking for photographic opportunities; my senses are heightened, as I notice the details around me. A good example is walking around a city. I see the details of buildings, the design, the texture, the use of space. I am people watching. I notice what they are doing, what they are wearing, how they are interacting with others and their surroundings, their facial expressions and mannerisms. I am also looking at the surroundings technically. How the light falls on the subject, the shadows and shapes it creates. Tones and colours changing the mood of the scene. Now, all of these might seem obvious, but how much do we really notice when casually looking around? As a photographer, I am probably more visually aware than many, but unless I go out with a purpose, in this case to create images, then I am not fully in the moment. This concentration is my escape, my diversion from negative thinking. In this time, I’m doing something I enjoy and I’m not dwelling on challenges I have in life. In fact, in some instances, when I feel I’ve captured an interesting image, I feel excited about the potential of what the image may offer me, when I get back to the office to process it.

It is fair to say, that I occasionally come back from a personal project shoot and not be happy with the outcome. My thoughts are: have I really nailed it today? That’s the inner critic in all artists, be they photographers, songwriters or actors. But it’s also this self-doubt, which spurs us on, to keep going and improving all the time. The important thing for me is not to take self-doubt too far and get in a deeper state of depression, as that will also feed my anxiety. I have to keep reminding myself of that. I also have to keep pushing to give myself this ‘me’ time. It’s an integral part of my therapy. It’s a prescription for the mind, which like prescriptions for other conditions, should be taken regularly. I’m still on the journey to better mental health. It will take a lot of strength and courage (Crikey!, I been trying to build up the courage to write this post for a long time). One thing is for sure. I see my photography (with or without recognition) as a key element of that journey.

One of the reasons for my writing this post is to hopefully help and encourage others to be open and true to themselves. Ultimately, by way of my little contribution,  to help end the stigma surrounding mental health. 

Useful mental health websites:

MIND UK

Time to change

Iam1in4

Beyond Blue depression & Anxiety (Australian site)

National Institute of Mental Health (US site)