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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!


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.

Originally published: January 12, 2016
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