Moms With Mental Illness Share Their Stories in Intimate Photo Series

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Photographer Natalie McCain first caught our attention last year when she posted a moving portrait series of moms of children with special needs as part of The Honest Body Project. Her latest installment focuses on raising awareness for mothers with mental illness.

In “The True Faces of Depression: A Series to End the Stigma Against Mental Illness,” McCain’s goal is to “help break down walls and encourage those struggling to speak up and get help.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five adults in the United States experience mental illness in a given year, and “stigma is one of the most challenging aspects of living with a mental health condition.”

McCain developed The Honest Body Project to “help women everywhere learn to love their bodies and themselves,” and she’s published photo essays on a range of topics, including cancer, fertility and loss.

The women in McCain’s latest piece don’t reveal their names, but they talk in depth about their experiences with depression, postpartum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, among other mental illnesses. Here’s a few excerpts of what they had to say:

Mom breastfeeding baby and holding kids

Mother smiling while holding her two children

Mother smiling while holding her children

“Things I’d say to a mama with PPD … Breathe with me. You are safe. Breathe with me. You can calm yourself. Breathe with me. You can handle this. These moments are tough and you are not alone. Be kind to yourself. Remember mistakes are opportunities for learning and imperfections do not equal inadequacies. You are enough. Every day you are doing your best…we all are. We are brave for trying! We are all in this together. Get the help you need.”

A mother holds her young son and smiles

Woman with glasses holds her young son

A woman smiles as she holds her yawning baby

“I’ve struggled with depression my whole life, for as long as I can remember … During pregnancy I surprisingly did not have any feelings of depression. It wasn’t until post partum that it really hit … I felt out of control. I felt angry and frustrated I was feeling this way. I was supposed to be the happiest person ever! I had a gorgeous new baby and I couldn’t even bring myself to get out of bed and enjoy him. After several months of seeing someone for professional help, I am now functioning pretty well. I work part time, enjoy spending time with my family and most of all my son. There are still bad days. There are still days I break down crying at work.”

A mother gazes adoringly at her two children

A woman holds her young son in her arms

A mother hugs her son while seated

“Depression is as real of a disease as cancer. If someone tells you they have cancer, you don’t doubt them and tell them it’s in their head. I wish that mental illness didn’t carry this stigma.”

A smiling mom plays with her young son

A mom sits on the floor holding her two kids

A mom shows off a tattoo on her stomach and holds her kids

“I wish more people knew how serious depression was. People like myself just blow it off like its nothing. Like its someone looking for attention or them just not being happy. But it is so much more than that. And until you have seen someone suffer from it or even felt it yourself you wouldn’t know. I would never wish this on anyone. If you have these thoughts or feelings, if you think its depression talk to someone. Talk to anyone. Get help. You are worthy. Don’t let it get as bad as I let mine get. Its ok to be on medicine, it was the best decision of my life.”

A mom holds her two children

A smiling mother cradles her infant

A mom affectionately holds her baby

“Dear New Mother in the Depths of PPD (aka, November 2012 Self),

It will get better. Repeat after me: “It will get better.” You are strong. You have been through and are going through a major life and hormonal change. Your feelings are valid and you deserve to be heard. You deserve to feel better. Many things are contributing to this stage you are at. And you have the power to take control of yourself and make a change. Keep “it will get better” as your mantra. When that new miracle baby is crying non-stop for hours (or even minutes) on end, put him in his rock & play sleeper for a minute, go to the bathroom, put on a fresh nursing bra and shirt, drink some water and come back. It will get better. When you are alone in the house because your husband is at work and your friends and family have gone back home, and all the frozen meals they brought you have been eaten, and all the “congratulations on the new baby!” cards and gifts have been put away, and you haven’t slept more than one hour at a time in 4 months, and you don’t want to pick that screaming baby up, say out loud “it will get better.” And then call someone you can trust. Don’t worry that they will hear that baby screaming in your arms. If you trust them and they listen to you, it is worth it and they will understand. Your thoughts are important and should be treated as such. It will get better. Call your insurance. Get a referral to a therapist. Know that if you have to go on medication to feel better, that YOU and your mental health are the top priority. Even if that means you have to stop nursing. Your baby will get formula and grow up healthy and strong. Even if that means you have to get a babysitter once a week so you can go to therapy. Your baby will be safe and fine when you return. Even if that means you call your husband at work and make him come home because the thoughts you are having are so dark that they scare you. You will get through this just like you have gotten through childbirth and many other difficult times in your life. It will get better. You have what it takes to make sure of that. Now, go get yourself a piece of chocolate, put that baby in the stroller and get some fresh air and a fabulous coffee. And call your insurance. Go!

Love, 

Someone Who Has Been There (aka – Your Future Self with an infant and a toddler who still goes to therapy once a week and is finding joy in motherhood and the simplicity of slowing things down)”

A mother holds her two children and smiles

A mother snuggles up to her son

Somber woman poses in her underwear

“Having a mental disorder does not define who a person is. If anything you should realize how strong that person is because every single day is a struggle just to survive, and they are defying all the emotions raging inside them and pushing through. They are strong beyond belief.”

A serious mother poses with her young child

Mom smiles as she holds her baby

Mother holding her young child

I felt so sad. I cried for no reason. I cried for every reason. I felt alone. My husband tried to help. God bless him, he was my rock. He never stopped loving me. He wanted nothing but to help me but I worried he would not know what to do with Emmy or not do things the way I did. I did not let him provide any care those early days. I felt my life was gone. It would never be back to any kind of normal, not even a new normal. I was not sure I could be a mom. I loved this tiny human more than words, but had I made a mistake? I felt selfish for thinking those thoughts. I felt guilt. So much guilt.”

Mother holding her baby daughter

Happy mom holding her child

Smiling mother holding her child

“Growing up, my mom suffered from bouts of severe depression, and I always wondered why she couldn’t just snap out of it. Why she didn’t just choose to get out of bed and take care of my sister and I. But as I walked through my own journey, I realized that it can control you. It makes you a slave and traps you in a dark cave and makes you fell like you don’t want to be any better. It makes you feel like you will never get better, so why make an effort at life.  But I want people, moms, dads, friends, everyone to understand that it doesn’t have consume you. It can be suffocating but you have to fight for your life. Really fight for it. Because nothing is better than coming out on the other side. That first ray of light after the darkness is enough to satisfy your whole life and then some.”

When asked what inspired the shoot, McCain explained that while photographing women for The Honest Body Project she noticed that a common theme was their experience with mental illness. “I wanted to create a series that focuses on this to help show how there are so many women struggling with this and they don’t necessarily ‘look’ depressed,” McCain told The Mighty.  “Most people struggle in silence, which is so hard to do. I wanted to inspire people to speak up and break the silence. So many women with postpartum depression fake smiles and tell their friends they are okay, when in fact they are really struggling and could use the support. It’s heart breaking to think of a new mom being afraid to reach out and ask for help when she needs it so badly. I hope that my series will help inspire women who are struggling to reach out and speak about their struggles. There is no reason to struggle in silence.”

All images courtesy of Natalie McCain/The Honest Body Project

To see more visit The Honest Body Project’s website and Facebook page.

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What's Your 'Best Excuse' For Avoiding Mental Health Treatment?

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If you are affected by mental illness, The Mighty wants to hear your response to this question: What’s one excuse you made before you sought treatment for your mental health? Send us your video response, and it might be used in a video for The Mighty! Here’s our last video, and a summary of our video tips for filming your response:

  • When using a cellphone, hold it horizontally with two hands if you can. Don’t hold it vertically.

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  • If using a video camera, be sure it is on a tripod or held by another person.
  • Try to answer the question in 5 – 15 seconds.
  • Use plenty of natural light. If inside, have your face towards the window. You don’t want the sun or a window behind you — it creates a silhouette and we won’t be able to see you.

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  • Record in a quiet place.
  • Speak clearly & concisely. Be sure your hand is not over the microphone. Play through the video before submitting to make sure you can hear yourself.

Please submit your video to [email protected] by January 18th. Please note: Every clip cannot be included in what is published. However, every response will be used internally, to help make our approach to mental health coverage as informed & supportive as it can be.

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The Mighty teamed up with Bring Change 2 Mind and asked the question, “What’s one thing you want someone with a mental illness who’s going through a hard time to know?”

Their responses were fantastic. If you live with a mental illness, here’s what our communities want you to know:

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The One Word I’m Replacing ‘Resolutions’ With This New Year

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The New Year has only just begun, and I have already witnessed people’s determination to “do right” by their resolutions for 2016 — gym memberships are skyrocketing and it has never been so crowded, restaurant goers are waiving dessert and choosing salad over steak, parents stating they will show more patience toward their toddlers, couples vowing to spend more time together rather than staying late at work, friends working to be there for each other regardless of distance, and people posting on social media that in order to be more present in their lives they will be unplugging more frequently.

Everyone is putting forth effort to make positive changes by doing things they believe will enhance their lives. They are reminded to do this once a year. I have to do this every day.  

The so-called “New Year’s resolution” is not an annual extravagant goal for me but a regular occurrence in my life. There is little fanfare that goes with it, and often as I master one item I have resolved to complete, I add another to the list. My life is hard, unfair and cruel, sometimes more than what others might experience. There are so many “big” things to work on when you have multiple intertwined mental health issues. My goals and resolutions may be similar to the ones other people make each year, but more often than not they are specific to the daily challenges I face and the way I see myself. For me, there is always another hurdle, another mountain to climb, another unmarked road to travel, and it is my resolve that continues to get me through in one piece.

Through all my grit, determination, and resilience, there is one thing that I have always struggled to do — really allow myself to see how far I have come. 2015 has probably been my most stable and healthiest year, and yet as midnight hit, all I could think of was how I needed to do more to be better, better than myself. So I’m turning the “New Year’s resolution” on its head. These are my “New Year’s reflections.”

I completed a graduated program, had a job created for me, didn’t stay overnight in a hospital, had 365 days of 100 percent medication compliance, have begun to love all of who I am, have gone geographically and socially outside my comfort zone, have climbed out of the darkest of places in my head, brought myself down from the highest highs and so much more.

Sometimes it can be hard for me to feel proud of these things that for me have been such a struggle to achieve but for others are just part of the daily grind. My path has not been straight nor has it been what I have expected. This year I realize that any further navigation will depend on my ability to look back at the path behind me. The detours haven’t stopped me, and I am sure there will be more. Most of the accomplishments I mentioned are things that a year or two ago I never imagined I could ever achieve. They were so “big” I couldn’t even picture them; the images just wouldn’t come. 

I would be naïve to believe my good year means I can stop doing the work. But it remains true that I can’t resolve to do anything to better my life without reflecting back on what I have accomplished. I am so immensely hard on myself. And I have come a long, long way.

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Hillary Clinton Responds to Mom’s Concern Over Son’s Mental Illness Treatment

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In a town hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, last Tuesday, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton discussed mental health stigma and treatment. Her comments were a response to a mother’s question about a challenge familiar to many in the mental health community — fighting insurance companies for adequate mental health care.

“I am the mother of a 16-year-old boy who is smart and beautiful, but he also really struggles with mental illness,” the mother said. “He’s currently in an inpatient program.”

Despite having what she calls “great health insurance,” the mother told Clinton how she has to fight her insurance company over every hospital admission and every bit of treatment, despite being doctor-recommended.

“The heath insurance company constantly tried to whittle it down and only provide the minimum amount,” she said.  “As a parent with a sick child I only have so much energy to fight this fight, and something just really needs to be done.”

Clinton responded with a few questions.

“How many of you know someone with mental health problems?” she asked her audience. “How many of you know how difficult it is to get the medical care you need to help someone with mental health problems?”

Although the U.S. government has passed parity laws — which state insurance providers must treat physical health and mental health equally — some families have found them poorly enforced. According to a report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness last April, patients seeking mental health services from private insurers were denied coverage at twice the rate as those seeking medical services, on the basis that the mental health treatment wasn’t “medically necessary.”

Clinton said reducing mental health stigma goes hand-in-hand with enforcing parity laws.

“I’m going to work with the mental health community which has laid out an agenda about how we get this right once and for all, because it’s not fair,” she said. “It’s not fair to the person suffering, and it’s certainly not fair to the families who are trying to cope with that suffering and get the medical care that’s needed.”

You can watch the entire town hall below. Clinton starts talking mental health at 20:10.

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To the Person Reviewing My Resume, From an Applicant With a Mental Illness

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I am writing to you to inform you of my desire to work for your company. Let’s get one thing out of the way first: I have a mental illness. Why do I think you should hire someone with a mental illness? You say you like people who can think outside the box and that is a strength you are looking for. Well, those of us with a mental illness can easily and quite naturally think outside the box. In fact, some of us have even experienced different realities and may be able to put a twist or a spin on that problem you are having that you never even imagined.

You mention that you value creativity. Most people with a mental illness are creative in one form or another. It hasn’t been proven yet, but there have been several studies trying to link creativity and mental illness. So far, the results appear to be in our favor.

You claim to value teamwork. We are masters at working on a team! We have a psychiatrist that we work with, a therapist that we work with, a general practitioner, group leaders, family and anyone else who is concerned about our care. We work on a team considering the most intimate details of our lives. I am certain we can handle working on a team in a corporate environment where our lives are not at stake.

You wanted me to address my strengths and weaknesses. For those of us with a mental illness, that is the same thing. Our strength is that we battle a mental illness every day. Our weakness is that we battle a mental illness every day. It is really the same thing. Consider it for a moment, and you will see this is an example of us thinking outside the box or using our creativity. What forces us to be strong also makes us weak.

You advertised that you want someone who is detail-oriented. Those of us with a mental illness have trained ourselves to notice details. We pay attention to our environment for triggers that will set off our anxiety or paranoia. We pay attention to our sleeping patterns. We make notes about our moods and our medications. We share most of these details with a team (back to our strength as team players).

I know you didn’t mention this in your ad, but I know it is of great concern to issues of morale — people with a mental illness won’t add negativity to the work environment. We will be so concerned about people judging us, underestimating us and seeing everything we do through the lens of mental illness that we won’t have the time, courage or energy to gossip, complain or bad-mouth any of our coworkers, bosses or policies.

You wanted me to mention my experience in regards to the position you are hiring for, but I know the fact that I have a mental illness is the biggest obstacle you have to overcome before you hire me. If you can do that, I’ll tell you about my previous experience in the interview. I have actually had some great jobs.

Follow this journey on A Journey With You.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability and/or disease. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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