Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Does Mental Illness Look Like?

Can images help us understand the experience of mental illness?

This post is in response to
A Public Display of People With Mental Illness?

Last month, I wrote about a public display of people with mental illness, an exhibit organized by McLean Hospital on display at Boston’s Logan Airport. The exhibit is 30 photographs, accompanied by stories of people who experience mental illness.

The piece I wrote received several comments, but the one that stuck with me the most was this one:

“If you think anything looks like mental illness, you're dreaming.”

The comment punched me in the gut, it rang so true.

I don’t take back anything I wrote about the exhibit, which is a brave and powerful effort to raise awareness about mental illness and help decrease the stigma attached to people with mental illness. But, as I reflected on this comment over the past several weeks, I agree: If you think anything looks like mental illness, you’re dreaming.

The Mighty, an online community featuring stories written by people facing disease and disability, recently ran a piece called “26 Pictures That Show What OCD Really Looks Like.” The story features a couple of pictures of neatly arranged items, representative of what the Internet tells us OCD looks like. And then it showcases pictures created by people who live with OCD that represent their experience in real life.

The images seek to show that “it’s not just about the compulsions but also the thought processes behind these actions, the invisible part of the story you can’t see from stereotypical depictions of OCD.”

The Mighty collected photos through their Facebook community, and you can see more than those that were included in the article here.

Again, there is no “look” to mental illness. And, nothing “looks like” mental illness. But, images can help increase understanding of experiences that can otherwise be hard to understand.

Consider the person who shared a photo of four Post-It notes (#11 in the piece). “I had to write this [note] for the freezer at work. I couldn’t get the alignment of the words right... I also took multiple pictures before I got this one right.”

Or the person who posted a picture of someone surrounded by a swarm of bees: “This is what my racing intrusive thoughts are like at their worst.”

What do you think? Do images have the potential to shed light on an experience that’s hard to understand?

Copyright 2017 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

More from Elana Premack Sandler L.C.S.W., M.P.H
More from Psychology Today