Using photography to raise mental health awareness

Áilín Quinlan talks to Neil Kelders about using photography to raise awareness of mental health and the groups’ upcoming exhibition.

Using photography to raise mental health awareness

Neil Kelders’ photograph of two electrical sockets is starkly simplistic, yet speaks volumes.

On the of several shots the Kerryman took to reflect the impact on his life of the depression which has plagued him since his teens, the snapshot is called Trying To Stay Connected.

“Two sockets. One is connected, one disconnected. I have days when I’m connected to society, and others where I’m totally detached,” he explains.

“I fight to stay connected, I want to, now, stay connected. That is why the connected plug is first. This was not always the way,” says the 39-year-old fitness trainer, who decided for the first time that he wanted to take his own life at the age of 15.

The photograph, along with several others taken by Neil and 15 other people suffering from mental health issues is part of an innovative research project in which photography is used as a way of exploring and raising awareness of the stigma associated with experiencing mental health problems.

“I remember writing the word “suicide” in my Junior Cert science textbook,” says Kelders, a native of Killarney, who has several other photographs in the project’s upcoming Look Beyond exhibition. Each reflects a different effect his condition has had on his life.

The exhibition, which opens in Dublin on Wednesday next, October 25th is being organised by See Change, the National Mental Health Stigma Reduction Partnership, and is an output of the Photovoice research project conducted by Dr Maria Quinlan of UCD and Dr Etain Quigley of NUI Maynooth.

“I’ve always had up and downs,” recalls Neil. I always felt that life was not for me, I felt it had no point,” he says, adding that he moved to Dublin in November 2011 in a bid to bring about some change in his life.

The plan was to do the entrance exam for Kings Inns and set up a fitness business, but things didn’t work out quite as planned.

“It became obvious that you cannot move away from your head,” he explains, adding that his depression continued to plague him.

“I was masking it by getting on with my life,” he explains — he was running his fitness business and taking tutorials with a barrister to prepare for the Bar Exam.

“I could spend up to three days in bed,” he recalls.

However, one day, in a completely unplanned move, Neil suddenly revealed his condition to a family member over a cup of coffee.

“I indicated that I wanted to take my own life. I felt great immediately after talking to someone but it was a false sense of relief.”

However, his family moved quickly, getting him seen at Pieta House where he had counselling. Neil steadily developed more self-awareness and made some significant changes in his life, cutting back on his fitness business and ending his study of the law.

In December 2014 Neil started a blog,, about his journey with depression. His posts received thousands of positive responses from all over the world— and an anonymous message crudely telling him to kill himself.

“Previously that one comment would have caused me to tip into a major depression,” he recalls now.

Instead, thanks to the counselling he had received, the strong sense of support he felt around him from family and friends, and his increased self-awareness, he blogged about this single negative message:

“I used it as an example to others, saying you should not be afraid to reveal your depression.

“You’ll get people who don’t understand it but it is important to talk about and share your experiences.” Neil has now developed a number of daily habits to help start his day in a positive way - they include making his bed, taking ten minutes quiet time in the morning, listing five daily points of gratitude, and writing his blog.

Photovoice, explains Dr Etain Quigley, is a research method which relates to the lived experience of participants.

While the topic of stigma was the over-arching theme of the Look Beyond Photovoice research project, she explains, the 16 participants, who come from all over the country, decided to investigate both what it felt like to live with mental health difficulties and what helped them on their path to recovery.

“They explored it through photographs,” she explains, adding that the work of the participants revealed that, among other things, living with mental health issues resulted in feelings of isolation and loneliness, distortion of reality, exhaustion feelings of being “squashed”, feeling redundant.

The research also showed that what helped the participants towards recovery were forming connections with other people, getting out into nature and interactions with pets and other animals.

“Photovoice is an interesting form of research because it’s participant-led.

“This really empowers participants and allows them a voice beyond what would be accessible in traditional quantitative research.

“It allows them to tap into feelings and emotions that would sometimes not be accessible through interviewing someone — asking people questions has a very different output than sitting down with somebody, looking at photographs they have taken and talking about how these photographs connect to how they are feeling.

“It gives a different dynamic to the data that you have collected.”

  • ‘Look Beyond – a Photovoice Research Exhibition’, will be launched at 6pm, October 25, in Smock Alley, Dublin.

A panel discussion about the research project and the effects of stigma surrounding mental health, will take place on the night.

The panel will be chaired by Director of See Change, John Saunders and feature Professor Jim Lucey, clinical director of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, Dr Maria Quinlan, Look Beyond lead researcher, Paul O’Rourke, Look Beyond participant and Rick Rossiter, Look Beyond participant and See Change Ambassador.

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