As the stigma around discussing mental health begins to improve, join me in this article to learn about how I have used photography over the years to help with my fight against PTSD and depression. Trigger warning: this article contains references to suicide, which some may find upsetting.
When I was just 14 years old, I went through a traumatic experience that would change my life forever. When walking through a local woodland on my way home from school, I discovered a body of a man who had taken his own life. This experience has left me with severe flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks. Once I found the body, I remember running to my house, but my parents weren't there. My parents were both still at work, and my heart was racing. I called the police and waited anxiously for help and my parents to phone me. I never felt so alone as I did then.
As I grew older throughout my teens and into adulthood, I continued to have a number of experiences that would challenge my mental health, and this left me with severe depression and now multiple trauma PTSD. Experiences in my life have ranged from having my house broken in to while I was inside and being attacked by a group with baseball bats to losing close family and friends.
Over the years, I have always been fortunate to have a good group of friends and family around me. They would understand the challenges I was going through and have always tried their best to pick me back up. However, I would never fully explain my feelings and kept many things bottled up. I preferred to try to fight things my own way, but deep down, I was struggling badly. I would laugh and joke when I was around them, but when I got home, I could easily break down. My life became a facade, and I considered taking my own life several times.
My First Camera
Around 2014, for my birthday, I asked my mum for a camera because I wanted to take photos of the local wildlife and from there my passion for photography grew. I started off with a simple, affordable bridge camera, but quickly grew to my first DSLR, a Nikon D3300. A couple of years later, the Nikon D500 was announced, and this was when I stepped things up a notch. My main focus was wildlife photography, but I thoroughly enjoyed capturing other moments too, such as landscape and astrophotography.
I have travelled to different parts of the UK, Iceland, the USA, and Australia, capturing as much as I could. I remember the first time I photographed the Milky Way in Australia. I’d never seen so many stars and would stare forever at the photo in disbelief that I took the image! The image hasn’t stood the test of time though, as now, I know about the 500 rule and other technical details that can make an even better image.
Back then, I also only shot JPEG and never backed up my files. I still kick myself to this day for that! It’s all a learning curve and will be for the rest of my life.
As the years progressed, I continued to push myself. I started a YouTube channel and also developed an interest for portraits. As an introvert due to my depression, challenges like portrait photography became welcome distractions. I would contact friends or random people on Instagram and ask if they would like to do a free photoshoot. They were always thrilled with the results, and this led to people reaching out to me on Instagram for a photoshoot and offering to pay me.
Fast-forward to 2023. I now shoot with a Sony a7 IV. I’ve learned from some of the mistakes I made in my early years and now ensure everything is backed up (well, almost, as I deleted some important raw files recently in Iceland, but that’s another story!).
I’ve worked for some great local companies, and I have also been very privileged to have been hired as a wedding photographer on several occasions.
Pushing myself in those mid-years to get out of my comfort zone enabled me to progress with photography and to earn money, which usually goes back into my development, equipment, and travelling to new locations.
One thing that always remains in common from the early days and now, is that when I go with the camera to do photography, suddenly all of my problems seem to go away. I feel at one with my camera and the location I am in, and I have this sense of focus and perspective, almost a state full of mindfulness.
I challenge myself with goals and set targets to make my photography better, and every day, I am learning something new and developing new skills.
Photography certainly takes the edge off my depression. These special moments make me realize I can just forget some of the bad memories in my head and focus on creating that perfect image.
It Wasn't All Rosy
It has not all been rosy, though. Since I came back from Iceland in October, I felt like I lost my creativity. I hit a huge hurdle and went to rock bottom mentally. I took a month of sick leave from work and couldn’t bear to face anyone or do anything. I realized I needed professional help, so I contacted my local doctor, who referred me to a great therapist.
I had my first appointment with the therapist in April, and I remember breaking down completely in front of her. I opened up about all the issues I’ve been through in the past and how it’s all come to the surface. It was now or never to try to fight this once and for all.
The therapist asked me about my passions, and when I discussed photography and mentioned I felt I had lost my love for it, she challenged me. She said: “Greg, start small. Grab your camera bag and start cleaning your gear and prepare for a shoot. Plan where you want to shoot and what you want to shoot. From there, go out and give it another go.”
I felt a sense of rejuvenation, not only from opening up and seeking help, but also I felt energized to pick up my camera again. I took her advice and cleaned my sensor and lenses, charged my batteries, picked a spot I wanted to shoot, and went and got the shot.
Sure, it wasn’t a perfect shot. I felt rusty, I made a few simple errors, but it was amazing to have the camera in my hand again. My problems disappeared for those moments in time, my mind refocused on what was important to me.
Whether I’m in Iceland photographing the aurora, on a beach on the Isle of Mull photographing Otters, or simply in a studio photographing a whiskey bottle for a client, photography has saved my life. I am indebted to those who have helped me, to my family and friends, to my wife, and to the therapist for getting me back out there.
For anyone reading this who is also suffering from mental health issues or knows someone going through a tough time, having any hobby such as photography can just give your mind that little bit of respite and keep you focused. I challenge you to get out there in the world and put your mind to something positive, no matter how small. It can save your life!
Thank you for being that honest! You don't blame yourself to ask for help. That is super great! I wish all the others needing help would feel free to ask and could accept it. Thank you for your motivating words! I wish you empiwer others too to step out!
Thank you for your comment. This article was a tough one for me to write. If the article can help or inspire just one person, to me that will be a success.
This is such a meaningful article. Thank you so much for sharing, Greg.
Thank you Alex, I really appreciate that 🙏
That was a brave step to ask for professional help. And it's for the best ! I think we underestimate the benefits of free creation and art crafts for mental health. Keep on with the good work !
Thank you Stefan, seeking help and also putting myself out there in this article was a big step for me. Its time to thrive rather than survive, and photography is a big help to that.
What a very emotional and honest article. Sadly for me, I've reached out to local doctors for help but there is nothing they can offer and seeing a private therapist is just too expensive. I am persevering with photography and have found a decent camera and lens I love using (A7III and Voigtlander 40mm f1.2) plus am having a great time discovering new photographers and other art forms that inspire me and encourage me to be more experimental with my own photography.
Hey Sam, thank you for commenting and reaching out. I'm really sorry to hear you are having a tough time as well. Going to the doctors was the first step for me and I'm not sure where you are based but my doctors offer a mental health nurse who I saw before going to a therapist. I used my work health insurance to see my therapist however I hope there will be more free alternatives available to you.
Id recommend reaching out to any mental health charities or support groups which can be a great step.
On to photography, the Sony A7III is still a fantastic camera to this day and you will capture some amazing images with it I'm sure! Keep fighting and I wish you all the best.
Sam, many therapists have a sliding scale as well.
I retired last year after a mostly successful career in law enforcement. I would have stayed longer but I began suffering from what was later diagnosed as PTSD, depression, anxiety and compassion fatigue. It took a year and a half of therapy, medication and forcing myself to get outside for hikes, mountain bike rides and photography before I finally started to feel somewhat normal. I have no doubt that exercising creativity benefited my recovery, which is ongoing and likely will never end. High praise to you for being vulnerable and sharing your experience(s) in the hopes that it may help others. Wishing you well on your continued path to a healthy mind and soul.
Hi Bret, thank you for your comment. I can completely understand how law enforcement can severely effect your mental health. It is a big issue among many police officers around the world, with the stuff you have to deal with on a daily basis. My dad was a police officer too so I am aware of the kinds of things he has seen and been through.
I'm delighted that you have found that nature and exercising creativity is having a very positive impact on your wellbeing, and I find that is also very much helping me along the path. I wish you all the best too :)
Thank you for sharing your story, Greg.
Thank you Mano
My brother died in 2010. He was my best friend. We played basketball in pickup games and basketball in tournaments throughout the city. When he passed, I became reclusive, even though I am outgoing. A friend of mine sold me a complete camera package. It had lens, flash and cards. Photography forced me to go out to into the world that I was avoiding. I still think of my brother a hundred thousand time a day. Now my friend love my photos. (Life goes on). I love you OSCAR
Thank you for reaching out Rey, and I am very sorry for your loss. I am glad that photography has helped you go back into the world again and given you that boost you needed. I wish you all the best