Mental health – a personal journey

Apologies for the long delay – I will be back shortly about a personal project on mental health which I hope will travel and exhibit.

In the meantime, below is a copy of a speech I undertook last year to a group of people at Leeds city library and how it affected my journey into photography. 

Most of it you will be aware of, so if it sounds familiar – sorry.

“Firstly, thank you for coming along today to this inaugural men’s mental health event, thanks to all the other speakers, singers, entertainers and stall holders. Thank you to Leeds city museum for allowing us to hold the event here and above all, thanks to Lisa Bourne for organising this event and starting the ball rolling.

My name is Darren Sanderson and I am a professional photographer based in Rawdon and athough I specialise in landscape photography, I shoot headshots, events, portraits, weddings and everything in between.

I also run photography walks and workshops around the local area.

Some people think depression is trivial and not a genuine health condition. They’re wrong – it is a real illness with real symptoms. It is an illness just like any other, though because you cant see it and you cant put a plaster on it, nobody wants to talk about it, people are still embarrassed by it and that is something in this day and age that has to change.

Depression isn’t a sign of weakness or something you can “snap out of” by “pulling yourself together”.

We need to move away from that frankly ridiculous statement.

We need to get men talking, we all need to talk.

Photography is my passion, my life, my business and ultimately it turned my life around and without it (and the love and support of my family and friends) I very much doubt I would be here talking to you today.

Im not here to tell you what to do and how you can beat depression, I’m here to tell you my story.

Hopefully it will resonate with you and help you to open up and talk and get the help you need.

I have only recently been very open about Depression, my ‘invisible illness’ and the need to talk, it wasn’t always that way :

I think I knew something wasn’t quite right a few years ago, but like most, I just put it down to life, getting older and normal day to day stress. I didn’t talk to anybody about how I felt “everybody has their own problems, I won’t burden them”.

Anyway, I must be ok, everybody thinks i’m confident so I don’t really have any problems, do I ?. Like most who suffer with a mental illness, I am a damn good actor and can put on a front when required.

In the early 2000’s, I started suffering from an unknown stomach ailment, which resulted in spending countless hours in waiting rooms, having barium meals and colonoscopies to determine the problem. This diagnosis (Diverticulitis) took nearly 10 years. At that time Asthma and Diabetes were also diagnosed.

Surely this must be the reason why so many horrible thoughts were entering my head and why I felt hopeless, helpless, useless ?.


Nothing had changed, what was wrong with me, why do I feel like I do ?

The sensible thing was to talk to somebody, my GP, anybody. Like most who suffer, I decided to do the manly thing and do nothing, let things fester inside and carry on feeling miserable. I didn’t want to bother anybody. We all have our own problems- sounds familiar doesn’t it ?

Things eventually came to a head when I couldn’t go into work and I was ill with one thing or another. I couldn’t put a finger on why. I got on with the people there, so nothing made sense. I was sat in disciplinary meetings, with 2 managers sat making notes and treating you like a child, without once trying to find out what was really wrong with me. At the time, when I needed the help most, ridiculous pressure was put on me, my doctors were contacted behind my back, threats were made against my position and I was made to feel like a pariah among my peers. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t the easiest to get along with at that time, but I had gone from been happy go lucky to completely insular. That was the time when I needed to talk off the record, but there was no one to turn to. Any talking would have to be with 2 managers and one of them making constant notes. The easiest thing in the world was for them to force me out and move on. Like the majority of companies, I don’t feel they were very well trained to deal with mental illness and depression in particular. I believe that there is a lot more that companies can do to help, there is surely a moral obligation to look after their employees and stop putting undue pressure on them with a tick box exercise. Look at the underlying problems.

At this time, I was forced into a corner, a place where I didn’t want to be, where I had no choice but to visit my GP. I didn’t look her in the eye (I didn’t look anybody in the eye at that time). A dam burst and everything came pouring out, I eventually looked up, she didn’t judge me, she listened, she talked to me over a long period of time, she referred me to specialists. From that point I saw my GP regular to talk (every 2 weeks), she cared, she wasn’t just doing her job and just going through the motions.

Once that initial conversation is done, it’s out there, you are not on your own, you can talk about it without fear. My head no longer felt it was about to burst.

I realised that it doesn’t make you weak if you talk about depression, it makes you stronger.

I likened my depression (and still do) to being stuck in a well where I just couldn’t climb out. On good days I would make good progress climbing up the well, on the bad days, I would slip down to the bottom once again. Now I’m at the point where I feel I have one leg over the side of the well on dry ground !

At last, the photography bit…

At the beginning of consultations with my doctor, she told me to get outside, don’t stay in and stare at four walls. “get fresh air, take a camera, just get outside”.

A lightbulb went off in my head.

I picked up a camera and went outside, just the back garden to start with, then the local park and then the local area. Hours flew by as I immersed myself in photography and read and learnt as much as I could about the weather, light, composition and everything that went with it.

One day, I spent six hours laying down in the mud waiting for a shot (I didn’t get the shot by the way), I spoke to my wife and said I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

I have been doing this for 4 – 5 years now and been self-employed for 3 – 4 years. After many long and sleepless nights, I made the decision with my wife and family, that I couldn’t return to my previous employers.

I couldn’t put my family (or myself) under the pressure they had to endure for a long period of time. Life is too short to put yourself in a position which has ultimately led to you being ill. It makes no sense to do that to your self and those around you.

So, I resigned (the most liberating feeling I have had in my working life) and felt a huge weight lift. I had already set up a website and wanted to see if it was something I could do and make a living of.

Regardless of what a few people thought, I did not officially go into business until I had served my one month notice.

To me, Photography isn’t a job in the real sense of the word, its my way of life, something that gave me back my life and my health

Even though initially I classed myself as a landscape photographer, I realised that I had to take the next step and force myself to meet new people. This really moved my life forward and I have since gained the confidence to have exhibitions, stand in front of a group of people talking and to start taking people on workshops.

I love what I do and feel very lucky that I have a small modicum of talent with which has enabled to be happy and relaxed.

Talent isn’t the important event in my story, its the fact that I can get outside and each day I can see an improvement in what I do and who I am

The one thing which gives me enormous pleasure, is for somebody to purchase my work (be it a print, a card, a calendar or trust me enough to photograph their event or their family) .

No amount of money can give you that feeling of excitement (like a child at Christmas) when somebody appreciates your work. I go back 2/3 years and think how badly I was suffering at that time, but in a relatively short period of time, the confidence has come back and I truly believe that if I can beat this illness anyone can.

So how does photography help me and how can it help you ?

Photography slows you down and gives you time to think, it helps you concentrate. It gives you a chance to express your feelings and thoughts at that moment in time.

It can give you a feeling of purpose, that you are at one with nature and that you are not in the house alone staring at 4 walls thinking the worst. It really helped me to get out of the house, to get outside, to think and to just breathe fresh air. It gave me something else to think about and gave me a purpose.

Photography isn’t for everyone and it wont work for everybody, its not a magic pill.

Though, it might help you, just give it a try. If nothing else, it gets you outside and gets you into the fresh air. I cant pretend it will be easy and the first step could simply be you putting on your boots and getting to the door and opening it – its a small start, but a very important one.

If you want to get out and try photography but would prefer some company, you could try a photography workshop. I run these on a regular basis and they range from a basic taster session up to a bespoke 1-1 session. They are always based outside in the fresh air. I will be around for the rest of the day, so come and have a chat if you want further information or if you just want to talk.

Alternatively, join a local photography club. Leeds photography club are here today if you want to go chat to them and find out what they do.

While I still have occasional bouts of depression, they don’t normally last long and are now no longer debilitating and I know that the bad days don’t last as long. Don’t get me wrong, you are not “cured”, you just learn to deal with things on a different level, in a different way.

It all started to turn around for me when I opened up and talked to my GP. So please, talk to someone, anyone who will listen to you. It’s not as bad as you think and is so much better for you and your family.

A BBC television documentary which recently aired mind overmarathon,was very moving and humbling and I urge you to watch itif you get a chance.

Why, If so many of us are suffering, why don’t we talk, why do we hold things in and suffer in silence ?

You are NOT alone (I thought I was, but I really wasn’t)

There is no shame in talking about this illness, the only shame is that we don’t talk about it.

Only by working together can we defeat depression.

If there is just one thing you take from today, please talk and listen to one another – its the most important thing you can do. It costs nothing, just your time.

You too could save a life.

I cant think of anything more important.

Thanks for listening”.

darren sanderson photography