If you have, or have had, a mental illness, then you might have experienced a difficulty in explaining it to others. I know that I have.
How, in words, do I explain what it’s like to have treatment resistant major depressive disorder, relate the experience of taking an ever-changing, seemingly ever-growing, smorgasbord of psychoactive medications, and share my emotional roller-coaster ride through fear and ennui from 20 or so sessions a year of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, aka ‘shock therapy’)? How, in words, do I tell you why, and what it’s like, to make and survive several suicide attempts? These are, after all, among the things that combine to frame my life.
Or I maybe instead of just words I could show this photo:
And it is photos and short movies like this that gave rise to Out From The Mist: an international short movie and photography competition which I initiated in 2019. Out From The Mist: is open to anyone with a lived experience of mental illness – mostly people with a mental illness, but also their friends, support workers and families. This competition came about because of three related factors.
First, for many of us, photographs and short movies, along with other visual art forms, can tell the story of mental illness – or aspects of that story – with greater fidelity and economy than can be achieved with the written word. This is hardly news, and it is certainly not to dismiss the written word – for example, the three words which best explain my experience at the depths of my depression are the opening line of “Ariel” by American poet Silvia Plath:
Stasis in darkness
(But note here that Plath’s line – like much of her poetry – is highly visual.)
In telling stories of mental illness, Out From The Mist invites entries that combine visual art (a short movie or a photograph) and an accompanying explanatory text. Entries are judged, exhibited online and in various galleries, and prizes are awarded. The vast majority of submissions are very good, many excellent – all potent testimonies to the experience of mental illness.
So why Out From The Mist? Simple: I wanted to change the world, even just a little bit.
Out From The Mist challenge stigma about mental illness – powerful and emotive representations of mental illness serve to educate and and emotionally move people, thus hopefully shifting their response to those of us who have mentally illness.
But a caveat – Out From The Mist won’t shift those people for whom prejudice runs deep. Instead, the intended audience is people like you. As progressive, well-read people, we all like to imagine that while others might be misguided, we are rarely prone to stereotyping mental illness. But I ask: how did you respond to my opening paragraph? ECT, medications, attempted suicide? Maybe you reacted in a calm and sympathetic manner, or perhaps you felt a bit uncomfortable, even responded negatively? Pitied me? There is no ‘right’ way to respond, just as there is no single ‘representative’ story of mental illness. But there are plenty of ‘wrong’ responses, and there are numerous common themes across the stories of most of us with a mental illness.
If you watch Out From The Mists’s short movies, study the photographs, and read the attendant explanatory texts, you will see emerging themes – some subtle, some blatant, all the stuff of living with mental illness. Think of the art submitted to Out From The Mist as a resource that you might find useful to better understand and more emphatically respond to people with mental illness.
Lastly, Out From The Mist exists to provide a place for people to tell their story. Maybe you are among the one-in-five who have a mental illness? If so, you may have experienced an ambiguous and tumultuous emotional journey of telling your story.
On the one hand, telling your story can be rewarding. Part of the pain of mental illness is in living a secret – telling your story can be liberating, it can make your illness ‘real’, removing the fear of being ‘found out’. As well, by telling your story you explain to yourself the things that are going on in your mind, cast light into otherwise unexplored spaces, making your illness more manageable. And lastly, it can strengthen and embolden – you find courage as you fight back against this illness that has worked so hard to weaken you.
At the same time, sharing your story can be painful and dangerous. If your illness, like mine, arises (at least in part) from abuse, then sharing your story can mean reliving the trauma, risking a worsening of your mental health. As well, you will almost certainly encounter people whose response to your story will be unhelpful, perhaps even harmful. (And sometimes these unwelcome responses will come from someone least suspected, often delivered with the best intentions.)
Recognising this, Out From The Mist invites people to share their story in a space where it will be valued and taken seriously. Contestants’ entries form part of a greater whole, where representations of mental illness is the norm. This is a safe and welcoming audience for those who seek to artistically portray mental illness.
Don’t underestimate this. I’ve had entrants say that they didn’t enter to win prizes (although they did win), but entered to tell their story. And these are not easy stories to tell – people are depicting something that can’t be seen, something that may have disrupted if not derailed their life journey.
There are not enough words to describe the stories captured in the short movies and photographs brought together by Out From The Mist. I am privileged to curate and direct this annual competition with its richness of people’s stories – their courage, wisdom and artistic talent continues to amaze me. If you have a lived experience of mental illness, then much of what I’ve written may seem self evident. Yet perhaps, if you haven’t done so already, you could consider entering Out From The Mist. For those without a lived experience – your’s or someone close to you – then Out From The Mist is a place where you might find some new insights into the lives of those of us with mental illness.