A campaign to revolutionise coverage of mental health issues is gathering pace as forces unite against the 'head clutcher' stock photo (above, Shutterstock) to illustrate fifty shades of mental anguish.
Plucked from an image bank, they are the last resort when no other photographs are available or the people involved in the story decline to be pictured.
But these images offend, stigmatise and stereotype, underscoring a general impression that mental health is something that leaves a person isolated and their head in a tightening vice. If every picture tells a story, these depict a remote landscape devoid of hope and understanding.
The models usually look physically fit, are dressed in smart catalogue clothing with neatly cut hair that's just been given a ruffle before they are told to ‘get into character’ by placing fingertips to temples or hands to the back of the head in almost an airline safety brace position – they're called headclutchers for good reason.
One in four of us will experience mental health problems in our lives and many more will be touched by it through families and friends.
As a journalist regularly covering mental health stories, I've become aware of the distress and outrage these images generate. Mental health service users, relatives and experts are dismayed and feel they detract from public understanding.
This is not just a print thing. Head clutchers can be found across all media with mainstream online and TV outlets, such as the BBC, regularly using them.
The UK media's approach to mental health has improved dramatically in recent years and we have emerged from the dark days when "bonkers" and "loony" were acceptable headline content. This editorial evolution is to the industry's credit.
But the head clutcher remains a hangover from a different age, a dead weight holding back progress. Don’t just take my word for it: The leading charities Mind, Rethink Mental Illness, Time to Change and service users agree.
Martin Townsend, editor of the Sunday Express, has just taken the lead by pledging to stop using head clutcher shots (declaration: I write most of my mental health coverage for the Sunday Express).
The obvious problem with any mental condition is that it rarely has a physical sign – plaster casts, bandages and crutches aren’t issued with diagnoses. Psychological bruising doesn’t colour the skin.
So, the big question from picture desks juggling the daily meteorite storm of image requests is: “If not a head clutcher then how can we illustrate a story about mental health?”
The answer is a new set of images that help portray mental health with a more positive profile. Skilled photographers should be able to produce a fresh gallery with a range of photographs that do more to capture mental health problems and their solutions. It’s not about shirking issues or neutering coverage – it’s about eradicating damaging stereotypes.
But this is not just the responsibility of editors and picture desks. The mental health community has a role to play in being more willing to be photographed for editorial. Fears about public reaction and job prospects are obvious and it may be that we have not reached a societal tipping point where it has become acceptable to discuss mental openly.
Although the Government’s bold pledge to have No Health Without Mental Health may be a bit creaky, there is a definite mood swing. A lot of firms have employment structures that deal with mental health issues on a par with the physical problems that keep people off work.
British journalism has been under unprecedented and unwarranted attack recently and although banning headclutcher images may not do much to quell the zealots, it is a perfect opportunity to display the compassion that underpins the trade.
Cleansing the image banks of headclutchers may take time and a lot of goodwill but it is a responsible step to take and entirely in keeping with the progressive nature of journalism.
Danny Buckland is a freelance journalist who has worked for the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Mirror. He writes regularly about mental health issues and general health across national titles and websites and has become increasingly concerned about the use of ‘headclutcher’ images in print, on TV and on the web. He is part of a campaigning group that includes mental health charities, service users and other journalists who want to find a better way to illustrate stories about mental health.