Typical 'headclutcher' image of a woman looking distraught, with her head in her hands

The ‘Headclutcher’ – What is it and Why Should We Avoid it? |

Imagine you’re a picture editor for a national newspaper website. I’ve written an article about mental health and you’ve got to find a picture fast.

What kind of picture are you looking for?

Let me guess. Does it show someone with their head in their hands, like the one above?

It wouldn’t surprise me if so. This has been the picture of choice when illustrating stories about mental health for years. Mental health is hard to illustrate. It’s easy to take refuge in familiarity. But (like the article on the misuse of ‘OCD’) this might be another example of how something that appears quite insignificant on its own can shore up entrenched attitudes and perpetuate stigma.

You’re probably not a picture editor. But you definitely will read newspapers and articles online. And you’ve probably made subconscious judgements based on these images in the past. Most of us have. But we can all learn something by questioning our assumptions and the world around us.

Here’s why mental health campaigners are speaking out against the ‘headclutcher’.

It’s Simplistic

The headclutcher image contributes to the idea that people with mental health problems are ‘depressed’ all the time. It tells us what someone with a mental health problem ‘should’ look like. What if you don’t look like that all the time (and most people with a mental health problem don’t)? What if there are times when you are cheerful, confident, laughing? Do you still deserve help? Are you really ill?

The symptoms of most mental health problems are not constant and many people are able to put on a public face while struggling enormously in private. This does not make them any less deserving of help.

It’s Dehumanising and Even Frightening

The headclutcher usually obscures faces. It contributes to the idea that mental health problems are something to be ashamed of and hidden away. We don’t have a chance to look into someone’s eyes and see their complexity and humanity.

Often the pictures are dark with faces in shadow. They look mysterious and even scary. In a society where one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year, is this really how we want to portray mental health? As frightening, remote and ‘different’?

Instead let’s use pictures to normalise mental health. To show people with mental health problems talking, looking at the camera, socialising, drinking tea, doing everyday things in everyday environments (as we do!). Time to Change have produced some great alternative images to get us started. And next time you see a headclutcher, take a moment to check how you feel about it.

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