It's time to ditch these mental health stereotypes

The ‘head clutcher’ picture of someone with their head in their hands has become yet another cliche  , says Ian Hulatt. 

The ‘head clutcher’ picture of someone with their head in their hands has become yet another stereotype, says Ian Hulatt 


I read a tweet today that stated a person had failed their Personal Independence Payment assessment because they ‘didn’t look depressed enough’. This got me thinking about how we expect depressed – and indeed any person with mental health issues – to look.

In mental health circles there has been much discussion and sometimes anger at the use of what’s become known as the ‘head clutcher’ picture. You may have seen it yourself in some publication or poster. It usually shows a person clutching their head in such a manner that you cannot see their face.

Stereotypical images

In fairness, the use of such pictures is probably an attempt to move away from outdated and stereotypical images that are no longer accurate. I refer to pictures that show people in shadow, possibly wearing some article of clothing or device to restrict their liberty. So when the ‘head clutcher’ was first conceived it was considered real progress, but now we have not only tired of it, but see it as an unfair representation.

Why unfair? Well it reminds me of a complaint I once heard from a person who visited a mental health service: they said they couldn’t ‘tell the staff from the patients’.

At the time I rather smartly answered that if they were unsure then why not speak to the people present and find out who they were. Yet there is a serious point underlying that possibly facetious reply on my part.

If we cannot rely on appearances (which I would suggest we probably cannot), and if we struggle to find images which capture satisfactorily the issues that challenge people, then how do we portray (if we must) the person who has mental health issues?

As we now know that one in four people have an episode of mental health problems each year, the most accurate pictures will be ones of you and I.

Ian Hulatt is mental health adviser at the RCN

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