When Katie Joy Crawford had to pick a subject for her senior photography thesis last year, she made it personal. The Louisiana State University student had been struggling with anxiety and depression, and she decided to fight her mental illness with her art.
“I decided to really focus on it and combat it,” Crawford tells SELF in an email. “As cliche as ‘face your fears’ has become, there is no better way to put it.”
The result of her brave decision to face her fears: My Anxious Heart, a project featuring twelve stunning photos that each show a different part of her emotional and physical journey with mental illness. Her mindbending images show what it’s really like inside the head of someone with mental illness, and she supplemented each photo with a caption explaining her experience. While Crawford could have used a model, she says posing for the images herself actually helped her cope.
“It was definitely therapeutic,” Crawford says. “I didn’t realize just how much it would change me. The more I had to identify my fears, articulate panic and create a body of work that could be visually translated, the more I was learning about myself and the workings of my own mind.”
Since publishing the photos to her blog last May, the images have gone viral. Crawford says she’s heard from a lot of people who relate to the project, including 60 year olds who finally realize they have a mental illness to teenagers just struggling to get through school without having a panic attack.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the U.S. suffer from a mental illness. Depression affects 6.7 percent of adults each year, and 18.1 percent of adults experience anxiety yearly, according to Mental Health America.
“I’ve heard from veterans with PTSD, mothers who felt like they weren’t enough for their children, husbands and wives that never understood what their spouses were going through until now,” Crawford says. “It’s been amazing. I truly would never wish this on anyone, but to know that a community is coming out of this project is such a blessing to me.”
Crawford plans to further help that community by creating a book entitled My Anxious Heart. It will feature her images as well as coping mechanisms, breathing exercises and other resources for those dealing with mental illness.
“Depression and anxiety are so very alienating on their own,” Crawford says. “If we can continue to uplift each other and encourage each other to heal and support others, I think we’re going to see a dramatic change in the conversations on mental health.”
Check out some of Crawford’s amazing images and moving captions for yourself below, and head to her website to view the complete project:
“a glass of water isn’t heavy. it’s almost mindless when you have to pick one up. but what if you couldn’t empty it or set it down? what if you had to support its weight for days… months… years? the weight doesn’t change, but the burden does. at a certain point, you can’t remember how light it used to seem. sometimes it takes everything in you to pretend it isn’t there. and sometimes, you just have to let it fall.” Image Credit: Katie Joy Crawford
“they keep telling me to breathe. i can feel my chest moving up and down. up and down. up and down. but why does it feel like i’m suffocating? i hold my hand under my nose, making sure there is air. i still can’t breathe.” Image Credit: Katie Joy Crawford
“it’s strange — in the pit of your stomach. it’s like when you’re swimming and you want to put your feet down but the water is deeper than you thought. you can’t touch the bottom and your heart skips a beat.” Image Credit: Katie Joy Crawford
“you were created for me and by me. you were created for my seclusion. you were created by venomous defense. you are made of fear and lies. fear of unrequited promises and losing trust so seldom given. you’ve been forming my entire life. stronger and stronger.” Image Credit: Katie Joy Crawford
“depression is when you can’t feel at all. anxiety is when you feel too much. having both is a constant war within your own mind. having both means never winning.” Image Credit: Katie Joy Crawford
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