Photographers on Facing Up to Mental Health in a Pandemic
For someone like myself, who suffers from quite bad anxiety during normal times, it’s safe to say facing potentially a whole calendar year of no work or income isn’t exactly a great tonic for one’s mental health. I have joked with my wife for a while now that at some point I want to take […]
For someone like myself, who suffers from quite bad anxiety during normal times, it’s safe to say facing potentially a whole calendar year of no work or income isn’t exactly a great tonic for one’s mental health. I have joked with my wife for a while now that at some point I want to take a year off — this isn’t quite what I had in mind!
Stress and worry affect everyone differently, my own personal journey since the lockdown began has been chronic insomnia which led to a cycle of migraines that left me debilitated for the best part of a month. There were the sleeping tablets to help break the insomnia, the beta-blockers to stop the migraines, the side effects from the beta-blockers, and eventually the antidepressant that is also used for migraine prevention with thankfully a lot less side effects (although hasn’t fully prevent the migraines).
As someone who has struggled with insomnia for 15 years, and migraines for 10, believe me when I say I’ve resisted taking medication for both at all costs, for a very long time… However, we’re in unprecedented times and it was the only option to try and get me back on some sort of level footing.
I feel mental health is still something we don’t talk about in this industry enough, and so I wanted to reach out to the Photographers Keeping it Real community and beyond in the hope of finding people who would be willing to share their own experiences through this time of seeing all our weddings postponed or canceled for the foreseeable future. I hope this helps people realize they aren’t alone in however they are feeling… to say it’s a tough time for us all is a massive understatement, it really doesn’t do it justice, and because it affects everyone differently it’s REALLY important to talk about it!
The financial impact on our businesses can be overwhelming… many of us are the main or sole income providers for our families, so working out how to survive financially can be all-consuming. Sure a lot of people have received at least some help from the government, but many have been penalized for being sole proprietors, or have been in business three or fewer years meaning they receive next to nothing, or were on maternity leave… or many other factors that have seen them fall through the cracks. None of it makes up for losing an entire wedding season of bookings and income even if you’re lucky enough to qualify for the maximum amount of help available.
This has been a HUGE cause of my mental health struggles over the past two months. Like many, I have small mouths to feed (Leon 5 and Ada 2), and my business is the main source of providing for them, so what do you do when all your income vanishes overnight? How much debt can you get in to in order to survive and still be able to continue in the future? It’s a tough one to work out, and one I’m yet to really come to a conclusion on!
Tom Beynon has been hit hard by this too, and has seen what was a very promising and exciting year completely ruined:
As someone who has suffered from depression all their life, I was braced for things to get difficult for my mental health in the coming year. It was clear during March that the Coronavirus wasn’t going away and would disrupt normal life for most of 2020. The crushing disappointment of losing my breakthrough year and subsequent financial worries have made lockdown life more difficult than I have cared to admit, not only to others but to myself as well.
Entire weeks have passed with me barely moving or getting anything done, without so much as getting dressed and, at times, struggling to get out of bed. Work-wise, I’ve been helping couples postpone their weddings and I’ve found very little energy to do much else towards the business as it’s a draining experience. To be honest, I’m not really sure where the last two and half months have gone.
John Woodward is someone who set up his business in 2015, and after suffering the loss of a couple of close family members just after, which impacted his ability to grow the business, felt like 2020 was finally going to be THE year it all clicked. However, despite not only hitting his targets for the first time but exceeding them, everything went out of the window. It’s not the financial side of things that’s been the worst part for him though:
What I have REALLY struggled with and I absolutely did NOT see this coming was the lack of social interaction.
Holy cow…. It’s hit me like a ton of bricks. In a big way. I have always enjoyed my own company, have been fine with a night in front of the telly or listening to music, but to have the option to see friends, to go away on free weekends, to do things with other people that aren’t my family and not worry…. I miss it like I never thought I would.
He’s got a great point here — when you think about the life of a wedding photographer, or really any job where you work from home the majority of the time, it can be quite a lonely existence, so remove not only the social aspect of the job where we go and shoot weddings and be SUPER sociable with the couple, guests, etc, but also remove the interaction with people outside our own household and you suddenly feel extremely isolated.
I Can’t Get No Sleep
Like myself, John has struggled to sleep too, and not only does that have a negative effect on how you see the world, but also mood and how we then interact with those around us… it’s amazing how much your perspective on things can change depending on how much sleep you’ve had. As someone who at times in my life has failed to sleep for up to three nights a week over a prolonged period of time, I can fully attest to the way it affects mood and the ability to function properly!
Here’s how it’s been affecting John:
I really struggle with sleep now. I’ve always been a light sleeper but now I wake 2-3 times in the night, I struggle to get to sleep sometimes with involuntary negative thoughts of horrible things happening to my family and friends smashing through my head.
Because of the lack of sleep, I am constantly tired and it changes my mood. I am irritable, become shouty with my kids (which I never said I would be), I am intolerant and snappy and it’s unfair on them as much as it is on me.
Out of Control
So what happens when you by nature are a bit of a control freak? If your personality normally means that you’ll be proactive and change something when things aren’t working? It’s something I’ve definitely struggled with because in general I’m extremely proactive and if something isn’t working I’ll change it, find a new path or new way of doing it instead of just accepting it for what it is.
I’m not the only one either, Hannah Hall also has found this particular aspect of things especially tough:
As someone’s who’s a bit of a control freak, a situation where multiple variants that are so life-changing (money, some money, any money, relying on the kindness of clients, wedding venues not really doing you any favors, a summer of no work but also no social life, when you live alone half the week, and with small children the rest of the week), and the result is feeling completely out of control with no way of pulling it back… It’s crippling my anxiety and the temptation is just to withdraw… which is no good for next year’s business, and beyond.
I’m so super stressed that I’m currently on track to shoot 60 weddings next year and anxious about how the hell I’m going to manage it.
That last part is especially important. We’re faced with almost every wedding moving to next year, and then trying to fit new bookings in on top of that, which will just lead to crazy and unmanageable numbers. It’s not just tempting to try and make up some of the shortfall from this year in 2021, in some cases it’s completely essential… but then what’s the cost on our mental health for trying to juggle unmanageable workloads and family? The pandemic isn’t just moving all our weddings to next year, but also carrying forward possible mental health issues with it as we try and fit everyone in.
Every Day’s a School Day
I’ve got to be honest here and say whilst we’ve done our best to homeschool our two children it’s been largely unsuccessful… sure we’ve done bits and bobs here and there, and our intentions have been good, but really we’ve had to focus on emotional support for our children, and so homeschooling has been sporadic and just keeping everyone happy and safe has been the priority. That’s easier said than done though if your partner is still working and you have the children all day… every day, it’s enough to test the patience of a saint, and then some! It’s like the summer holidays, only you can’t go anywhere and every day is EXACTLY THE SAME!!!
A big thank you to John Woodward for being so open and sharing how this side of things has affected him:
I am the one doing the homeschooling as my wife works from home full time (her work have been amazing) but because the frame of mind I am in is not a good one, it reflects in my lack of patience with my children and then I see things negatively when my wife comes to help, and instead of “thank you that’s great” it’s more of “oh here comes the knight in shining armor”, and I get resentful.
I occasionally get one decent night’s sleep and it makes a world of difference. But these things are fleeting and hard to sustain as inevitably the anxiety of how my business will be affected, what will happen to us, how is my mood affecting my family and my children (I also start to hate myself because of how I am, and that brings another layer of anxiety to the proceedings)… and this all stems from the total inability to get out of my own skin and have time for myself with others, and do things for myself beyond looking after my children and try and be a good Dad, knowing that right now I am not the best person to be around.
It’s starting to feel like an increasingly tight and tall spiral with one thing feeding the other. I am trying… I have gone for a walk once or twice on my own, I have tried to spend time away from my family in my office listening to music to distance myself, work on my business where I can and just chill, but it’s just not the same.
I can completely understand where John is coming from here because it’s exactly what my wife Gaia experienced just after lockdown. I had work to complete, a wedding to edit, things to do for my tax returns and all manner of things to deal with from the client side with postponements, etc… then the migraines hit. So Gaia spent about a month as mum, teacher, wife, and never just as ‘Gaia’. It’s an impossible situation and the pressures are increased when you can’t then do any work of your own, meaning you feel helpless to the fact your business is stagnating.
The Vanishing Effect
It’s safe to say that seeing all your work vanish for possibly the whole year is brutal, even more so when 2020 was going to be YOUR year! Tom Beynon has worked tirelessly to build up a successful business, and after a few bumps in the road he’d finally got there, only for Covid-19 to come along and undo all that hard work:
There were so many ‘firsts’ that I would have ticked off this year: My first triple run of weddings on three consecutive days, my first shoot on a beach in Cornwall, my first ridiculous journey between weddings (I had to drive 8 hours from the wedding in the far end of Cornwall to a wedding in Essex overnight) and lots of other small things which meant it really felt like a breakthrough year. Some people might think they were odd things to look forward to or to feel like they are goals to tick off, but these were the kind of things I saw more experienced wedding photographers doing. It felt like it was a sign of making it.
32 weddings, 32 ideal clients, 32 top venues, 32 dates in my diary that I was itching to get stuck into.
I’ve shot 2 of them.
It’s a hard pill to swallow when you’ve seen all your hard work undone by something completely out of your control, especially when you had such high hopes for the year ahead!
Phil Salisbury is no stranger to mental health, having suffered over the years, we’re grateful for his experiences as he’s given us some great tips to share with anyone suffering with their mental health during the pandemic:
1. Routine – this has been key. Take some time (soon, don’t leave it and do it ‘tomorrow’) and map out your week ahead. From the time you’ll rise in the morning until you head to bed. Create structure. This gives you guidance, direction, clarity, and assists in clear thought processes. In my experience, this can bring down anxiety if you suffer from it.
2. Gratitude – “Have an attitude of gratitude”. Be grateful for what you have and not what you don’t. Make a physical list of 5 things you are grateful for. IT CAN BE ANYTHING! This allows you to focus on the good. Like attracts like and if you think good thoughts positive things start to aline and work for you instead of against you.
3. Exercise! Its been physically proven that exercise reduces stress levels and eases your state of mind. 20 minutes a day doing anything that will work up a sweat is better than sitting on the couch and pondering about that which is causing you mental health issues. It doesn’t matter if its 20 minutes walk or if its 20 minutes intense hill sprints, do something and this will have a positive effect not just now but for the future. Make this a ritual, not a habit. Habits will fade like willpower, but rituals don’t!
4. Social media! This is a biggy!!! Now the chances are there will be some irony in this (as you may read this on social media). However, manage the time on social media. Change the settings on your apps to block you using it during the day if possible. Where you use it for business only set notifications for your business to on, turn everything else off. Allow just an hour a day to work through your notifications and see how this positively has an impact. There are far too many people putting things out there on social media “Look at my life and how amazing it is….” but that’s not reality! As a wise person once told me you’re comparing your cutting room floor to someone’s highlight reel. This will only have a negative effect on your state of mind and probably make you start to compare your life possibly to theirs. So don’t believe what you see, it’s probably nonsense.
5. Diet! During lockdown its never been more tempting to reach for the wrong foods. Who doesn’t want another chocolate biscuit or something that’s equally calorific? What you put in you get out in all aspects of life, and right now you need to keep the mind healthy so it can be wealthy. This starts with what you put in the proverbial engine – so make it healthy. This will give you the energy for the exercise, then allow you to focus on the positives in your life. Diet can also relate to social media – you only ever want a small slice of social media. This is your ‘treat’, the naughty bit of the healthy plan, so small quantities and you’ve managed it well.
If I’m honest I wasn’t sure where this would go when I started writing it as there’s a lot more to talk about, but I hope this helps someone, it did me when I got the advice and started to change things for the better. It all starts with a choice, what you choose is up to you now.
Amen to all of that.
A HUGE thank you to those who contributed to this article, it’s a difficult subject and hard for people to put their thoughts and feelings into words, everyone had LOADS more to say too but I had to condense things to make the article a manageable size, I hope that I’ve represented their overall experiences well though.
The purpose of this article is to start a conversation, be it with yourself and a pen and paper, or close friends and loved ones… or just the wider photography community. Whoever it may be, please understand that you are not alone and it’s important to talk about mental health. As someone who struggles with anxiety I know what it’s like to be in a bad place and not really understand why you’re feeling that way, and how opening up about it really is the first step to feeling better. So don’t bottle it up, don’t feel alone, there’s always someone to speak to, always a sympathetic ear to listen.
If this article encourages just one person to open up about their struggles then it’s been worthwhile for those who contributed to go through the difficulty of sharing their innermost thoughts, however, I hope it encourages lots of people to talk about how they’re feeling, because believe me when I say you really aren’t alone in this.
Many thanks to Laura Babb for giving me the links below which are great resources for those struggling with their mental health:
About the author: Andy Hudson is the co-founder of Photographers Keeping it Real, a website, award, and podcast for documentary wedding photographers. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors. You can find more content by Hudson and connect with him on his website and Facebook group. This article was also published here.
Image credits: Header photo by Foundry