Friday, 8 November 2013

The Headclutcher Strikes Again

In May I posted this about the peculiar tendency for newspapers to run a "headclutcher" image with any story about mental health issues. Silly though these pictures are, their use raises some interesting questions. How do we see people with mental health problems? Who are the acceptable faces of mental health in the mainstream media? What representations of distress are we prepared to look at when we scroll through the news? These questions are linked to the issue addressed in this pertinent New Statesmen article by Glosswitch, that not everyone with mental health problems will fit into a comforting "normal" image.

Today there has been a brief flurry of activity around the headclutcher below, which was originally used to accompany this article about voice-hearing by Charles Fernyhough and Eleanor Longden. Though still certainly a headclutcher, this lady has a more aggressive, scary presentation than usual. She is trying to block her ears in a flamboyant over the top way and appears to be shouting in anger or distress. We may note that the Guardian chose a red-head, perhaps seeking to bring to mind the lazy associations people have about their being tempestuous or hot tempered

Fernyhough immediately expressed discomfort with the Guardian's choice of image on Twitter, and he and Longden appear to have had words with the article's editor. The piece is now garnered with a tasteful screengrab from Longden's recent TED Talk.

Though they may sometimes seem a mere distraction from the main event, the media's use of illustrative pictures is important in the public consumption of mental health stories. Stigma is a huge problem and recent experiences with Asda's "mental health patient" halloween costume and Thorpe Park's "Asylum" have shown that it takes sensitive and thoughtful people to notice the implicit messages that are finding their way through to us. Headclutchers are not stigmatising in the same way as tasteless Halloween products but they are embarrassing and lazy; a form of journalism that is subtly derogating its subject. It's time the media thought a little harder about what images they used to accompany such important stories. 

1 comment:

  1. Good post. A quick scan of the Guardian's picture choices for physical illness stories shows that they don't use generic 'unwell' pictures for physical illness -- e.g. no stock 'heartclutcher' photos for stories about heart attack rates/risks. People in photos illustrating cancer even get to look at the camera.. Mental illness photos, on the other hand, _always_ seem to show distress, even if it's coupled with 'lifestyle problem' picture tropes. Why these pictures are regarded as tasteful, whereas 'unwell' photos of physical illness aren't, is something of a puzzle. It may be that advocates for physical illnesses have won battles over how they are represented, while the same battles about representing mental illness pictorially have yet to be fought (though kudos to you for kicking off the campaign, and getting a result on the picture in your post). Maybe one day in the distant future we'll be allowed to look into the camera.