In November of 2014 I dropped out of school. My anxiety and depression had reached their peak and school was becoming impossible for me. It got to a point where I couldn’t physically get myself out of bed and to class because of an all-consuming anxiety of being around people. So, having been exposed to mental health with my friends and family before, I knew the right decision was to withdraw from school and head home to get the help I needed. The people I knew at school knew nothing about what was going on with me, and so I made a post on Facebook explaining the difficult situation I was in. It was tough to come to terms with what was happening to me, and putting that into words felt like a huge risk.
“What if people judged me? What if people saw what I was doing as giving up or being lazy?”
However, their responses surprised me. I received an outpour of support in the form of messages and comments from countless friends who felt similar to how I was feeling. People who I had not spoken to in years reached out to connect and share their own experience with mental health. They praised my bravery of addressing my problems head-on by leaving school. It was incredible. Mental health wasn’t something that was talked about around my circle of friends, but from the amount of people who shared their stories with me, it seemed that everyone had some sort of exposure to it.
Over the next nine months back at home, I got the help I needed and gradually began to share more about what was going on with me. I found photography to be a great way to express myself when I felt high or low. Whenever I was in a particular mood, my mind began to turn to how I could possibly express those feelings in a photo. I challenged myself to express how I was feeling more, as well as challenged myself to push the limits of the photography skills I had. I began to post photos everyday and they were very well received. Friends and sometimes even strangers would message me telling me how they connected to a particular photo or caption I posted and that encouraged me to continue the creative outlet I had for my mental health.
I found portraits to be a particularly powerful type of photo. Photos of people’s faces were always particularly striking to me because I felt as if I could tell how someone was feeling by their facial expression. I began to take photos of more and more people, and my love for portraiture grew.
When the next school year came around, I decided to head back to school. My anxiety and depression were under control, and my doctors and I were confident that I would be able to make it through school without any major issues. They were right. Dropping out of school and getting help not only made me enjoy school more, but it allowed me to thrive socially and feel normal again. Back at school my love for photography continued to grow. I carried my camera everywhere and always tried to get photos of my friends as we studied or socialized. I also continued to try and express my mental health through photos. The stress and time demands of school made it more difficult to find the time to be creative, but I managed to create a few images I am particularly proud of. I found I was most creative in the middle of the night. I’d settle into bed after a long day of studying and suddenly the perfect photo idea would pop into my head. I would feel the need to act on it immediately. I’d get out of bed and sometimes stay up late into the night trying to create the perfect photo for how I was feeling in that moment.
As final exams and winter break rolled around, my mind turned to summer. I had gone travelling before but I wondered what I wanted to do this upcoming summer. A few summers previous I cycled the 1000km long Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in France and Spain. I decided I wanted to walk it again this year. As I was heading to bed just a few days before my last exam the idea of Project Pilgrim came to me.
How cool would it be to take my passion for mental health and photography and actually make something out of it?
So, I decided to dedicate my travels this summer to photographing people’s mental health along the Camino. The rest of the project came to me quickly. I could take their photos and ask people questions about their mental health during my month-long walk. I could also create a small printed photo book of all these photos and include their appropriate captions. I spoke to my friends about the idea and they loved it. They encouraged me to get others involved, so I began planning and reaching out to organizations that I knew. Many came onboard. To them, the idea that someone who has faced their own mental health struggles and now wants to give back by talking about mental health on the other side of the world, seems perfect. Many organizations have offered sponsorships in various forms and the project has grown larger.
It is now just 2 months before I begin my walk, and the momentum is growing. To practice, I have taken 120 of my friends’ photos and asked them about their mental health. I plan to share these photos everyday from the project launch on February 21 until the day I begin walking at the end of April on my Facebook and Instagram page. The reason I am launching this project so early is because of the photo book. Book printing companies require a minimum bulk order for printing and I have decided to pre-sell the book through a Kickstarter. Over the month of March, I will be selling the book in hopes to reach the minimum order of $4000. This $4000 will cover the bare costs of the trip (design, website, minimum book order, etc.). I hope to reach a goal of $10,000, which will completely fund my trip. However, if the goal of $4000 is not met, the trip may not happen. I have invested money into this project and if I don’t get any return on that money, it would be better for me to work during that trip and make that money back.
I am excited to head to France and Spain in just a few months and begin talking about mental health. When I first admitted I was struggling to my friends they showed an outpouring of support to me. With this project, I hope I can help people feel supported in their own mental health, too. Talking about mental health normalizes mental health and I hope by initiating these conversations, I will help people who are struggling to feel more inclined in getting help. I believe that hearing someone else’s successful treatment story will inspire those who are feeling down to reach out.
You can follow Project Pilgrim or learn more at the links below.