New iStock study: 94% of respondents believe mental and physical health are equally important

In recognition of World Mental Health Day, iStock, a leading ecommerce platform providing premium visual content to SMBs, SMEs, creatives and students everywhere, has released guidelines on the use of imagery to effectively communicate mental health issues without stereotyping or triggering those suffering. 

New data from iStock’s research platform Visual GPS shows that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on people’s mental health with 1 in 5 people globally stating their biggest source of worry is their continued feelings of discomfort or anxiety and their mental health. The research shows that 94% of respondents believe that it is equally important to take care of themselves emotionally as well as physically, with 92% of respondents wanting to see more support for those with mental health issues.  

With one in four parents stating that they are concerned about their own and their children’s mental health, there is a clear need for an open and honest dialogue about ill mental health and how it manifests. Unfortunately, commonly used imagery often fails to accurately portray the experience of sufferers and can be found belittling or even triggering. 

iStock’s Head of Creative Insights EMEA Jacqueline Bourke commented, “Despite the fact that almost half of UK employees have returned to the office, at least on a part-time basis, worries about the pandemic remain among the workforce. It is therefore crucial for Small-and mid-sized businesses everywhere to still consider how they craft communications and guidance to ensure that their staff feel confident, informed and secure, and as though their wellbeing comes first. Visuals will be a core element of those communications, but what’s equally important is choosing imagery which highlights that employers care about employees’ mental health.” 

iStock has created the below guidelines to assist businesses in choosing imagery which will elevate the conversation around mental health. 

  1. Move away from cliched images and common stereotypes. Whenever possible, leverage authentic, “real-life” pictures, as opposed to staged ones. Images of people clutching their heads, sitting in dark corners, or looking out at the rain are commonplace depictions of poor mental health and do not capture the spectrum of mental health experiences and what they look like in everyday life. 
  2. Prioritize inclusivity. Able-bodied white women are often prominent fixtures in mental health imagery. Over-reliance on one demographic excludes the diversity of identities and communities that experience mental health challenges. This can reinforce existing stigma within underrepresented communities and discourage them from seeking the appropriate support. Limiting the conversation to women also risks reinforcing negative stereotypes (e.g., emotionality and vulnerability for women; anger and violence for men) and unhealthy societal norms around gender (e.g., regarding beauty and docility for women; discouraging vulnerability in men). Mental health is something that effects everybody and imagery should reflect this, extend the importance of mental health across gender identity, race, ethnicity, age, ability, and more, to ensure men, people of colour, and others are also represented in imagery. In the last year, iStock saw a 187% rise in visual searches for “diversity and inclusion,” indicating a clear appetite for widespread representation. 
  3. Showcase community. Common depictions of mental health often depict people in isolation, whether sitting alone, standing away from the crowd, or creating distance between loved ones. To de-stigmatize mental health and promote healthy practices, opt for imagery that shows individuals in a community setting or getting support. This can include attending a group, speaking to a therapist, or spending time with family and friends. 
  4. Embrace self-care. Good mental health is equal parts proactive and reactive. To demonstrate the importance of self-care, incorporate imagery that shows people relaxing and participating in wellness activities. This can include going for a jog; taking a refreshing bubble bath; or journaling, to name a few examples.  
  5. Move away from illustrations of brains and disembodied heads. Depictions of the cause of mental health challenges can shape how people think in a positive or negative way. It can also affect whether they seek support. These kinds of illustrations can also feel detached and impersonal. To better capture the nuances of mental health, instead convey the environments we work in, communities we live in, and depictions of self-care, versus isolated body parts.  
  6. Avoid over reliance on exercise as a stylistic device. When depicting wellness, images of happy women practicing yoga are often prevalent. Relying on images of yoga as a portrayal of “good” mental health oversimplifies the support needed for mental health challenges and ignores environmental and other determinants of mental health. Similarly, such an idealistic portrayal of mental health increases stigma by alienating more serious challenges (ie: toxic positivity). Instead, use images of a “healthy reality” — one that encourages, empowers, and reinforces health behaviours, without idealizing or glamorizing.   
  7. Avoid inaccurate stereotypes around mental health being tied to violence, instability, and criminality. Eliminate any imagery depicting or implying suicide, self-harm, or other negative, violent, or explicit depictions of mental health. This is essential because traumatic imagery can re-traumatize individuals and trigger further challenges. For serious cases and conversations around mental health, be intentional about the use of imagery, why the imagery is being used, and what it communicates. 

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