When you type "depression stock photos" into Google image search, the results are less than encouraging. It's a 50/50 split of mostly white, mostly male models with their head in their hands or a gun to their head. When you're among the one in four suffering with a mental health problem, an article illustrated by a photo like this is demoralising.
While it's brilliant that the conversation around mental health has really opened up over the last few years, it's disappointing to still see such limited imagery out there on major platforms; imagery that makes depression look like a headache.
The design and photo team at Refinery29 are well versed in the limitations of existing stock photography and, in response, we've been producing our own stock photography with the aim of representing real women's experiences for over five years. It is vitally important to us that the women you see on the R29 website are representative and relatable. But when it came to mental health, it wasn't just the people in the photographs who needed to be representative – we wanted to creatively reflect depression, anxiety, mood disorders and more as you feel them, instead of a 'one size fits all' image that doesn't really speak to anyone.
Earlier this year, we set up an anonymous survey with the aim of getting to the root of how mental health disorders actually feel. We asked sufferers in our audience to respond with words and phrases that summed up their experiences so we could work these into a visual representation. The results from the survey were shocking.
"[Depression] feels like I can barely keep my head above water", read one. "[OCD is] like there's someone in your head just feeding you lies", said another. "[Depression is] foggy, like you're behind a thick pane of glass watching everyone else live life", yet another stated, and "[Stress] feels like loads of brightly coloured squiggles intersecting with each other, too much going on."
Working alongside photographer Flora Maclean, who shares our passion for representing mental health disorders visually with sensitivity and respect, we translated these words and phrases into visual concepts. The resulting series of images make some of the more complex feelings of the mind tangible. They exist to give sufferers clarity of experience and remind them that they aren't alone on their journey. They exist to encourage empathy and understanding.