New Brunswickers share their personal mental health messages in striking exhibit

·5 min read
One of a series of 19 photos in Andrea Donovan's Mental Health in N.B. exhibit. (A.Donovan Photography - image credit)
One of a series of 19 photos in Andrea Donovan's Mental Health in N.B. exhibit. (A.Donovan Photography - image credit)

The idea had been percolating for months. Andrea Donovan, a photographer and teacher at Fredericton's Leo Hayes High School, had been thinking about the silent struggle that was happening all around her and about ways she could give that struggle a voice.

And then suddenly, about a month ago, the idea crystallized.

She decided to put together an exhibit that captures the faces and voices of New Brunswickers' everyday battle with mental health — as told through the camera lens.

"Images are so powerful," she said. "They can evoke a reaction that words alone can't."

She put the word out via Facebook and asked friends to share it.

"I was a little nervous," she said. "I thought people would think it's a silly idea. That's what anxiety does to you, it makes you doubt yourself, tries to keep you silent, and ashamed."

To her surprise, she started getting responses instantly.

Phone calls, messages, dozens of people saying, "I'm ready to talk."

Each subject chose a quote from their own conversation to superimpose on their photo.
Each subject chose a quote from their own conversation to superimpose on their photo.(A.Donovan Photography)

The healing power of speaking out

Donovan is candid about her own struggle with anxiety and depression and how it has affected her. But it wasn't always like this.

For years, she suffered in silence, convinced everyone else "had their stuff together."

"It's incredibly isolating," she said.

"When a co-worker first suggested that I get help, I was horrified," she said.

She had never talked about her mental health with anyone, and worried that she'd be "judged unfit" to do her job or to be given responsibility. "All I knew was the stigma attached," she said.

But eventually, she did get help.

Donovan said many of the long, unrushed conversations she had with her models held the same message: "I'm tired of hiding. I'm ready to be seen."
Donovan said many of the long, unrushed conversations she had with her models held the same message: "I'm tired of hiding. I'm ready to be seen." (A.Donovan Photography)

"I realized that I'd been suffering in silence all those years, and from then on, the world became a different place."

That's when Donovan realized silence is the enemy of good mental health, and that talking about it is a powerful weapon against that enemy.

For her latest project, the talking began in her photography studio.

"Initially, I wanted to use the project to highlight access to quality mental health care, the ridiculous wait times people have to endure to see a therapist, cost – I was looking for those stories," she said.

Subjects of all ages, from all walks of life, came forward to participate, helping to illustrate the fact that mental health struggles can affect anyone.
Subjects of all ages, from all walks of life, came forward to participate, helping to illustrate the fact that mental health struggles can affect anyone.(A.Donovan Photography)

But it soon evolved into something different.

As each model arrived at Donovan's studio, they'd start talking about their own personal mental health journey.

The conversations were long, unrushed, and deeply moving.

"For many, it might have been the first time they had talked about it," Donovan said. "Over and over, I'd hear 'I'm tired of hiding. I'm ready to be seen.' "

Only when they felt they'd fully shared their story, "we'd go to the studio and take the photo."

The photo series, titled Mental Health in N.B., is viewable on Donovan's A.Donovan Photography blog.
The photo series, titled Mental Health in N.B., is viewable on Donovan's A.Donovan Photography blog.(A.Donovan Photography)

Stark, striking photos blend images, words and mood

About those photos.

They are stark, striking, an evocative blend of sadness, fear, hope and bravery, a powerful series of 19 black and white photos in which New Brunswickers of different ages and backgrounds share some aspect of their own story via a portrait and a quote taken from their conversation with Donovan.

The words on the photo are "100 per cent genuine," taken from their stories and selected by the subjects themselves as the message they most wanted to share.

"One girl came all the way from Florenceville for what was essentially a 10-minute photo shoot because she wanted to send a positive message," Donovan said.

"She wanted to share what she has learned in her struggle, and she wanted other teenagers to know they are not alone."

Her message? "You are not a burden."

The photographer in her studio: A self-portrait.
The photographer in her studio: A self-portrait.(A.Donovan Photography)

The finished photo series, entitled Mental Health in N.B., is now online on Donovan's website, A.Donovan Photography (under the "blog" dropdown), and has been widely shared on various Facebook pages.

Shawna Betts, mother of Leo Hayes High School student Lexi Daken, who took her own life in February days after she'd spent eight hours waiting in vain to receive medical help for a mental health crisis, said she has seen the exhibit and is moved by it.

"So many people have messaged me about this," Betts said.

Betts, who along with Lexi's father, Chris Daken, has been outspoken about Lexi's battle with mental health and the state of mental health services in the province, thinks the exhibit is a unique way to share that message.

"One thing we've learned is how badly those voices are needed," she said.

That's precisely the message Donovan had hoped to convey, and she thinks her exhibit subjects deserve much of the credit for that.

"They were brave enough to share their stories with a complete stranger," she said. "I think they're the real heroes here."

If you need help:

CHIMO hotline: 1-800-667-5005 / http://www.chimohelpline.ca

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566.