The power of a picture: Enhancing the patient experience with photoVoice

Many of you have heard the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. What if that picture meant even more?  Athena, a patient at the North Bay Regional Health Centre (NBHRC) participated in a group called photoVoice. The focus of this photoVoice group was addiction.

Athena was only 15 years old when she gave birth to her son.  After only eight short months, he was taken away from her. As any parent can imagine, this was the beginning of a very long, painful road. First came depression, then the addiction to alcohol and drugs. After years of struggling with depression and addiction, things escalated and she was convicted of a crime, which ultimately lead her to the Mental Health and the Law Division of the NBHRC.

Mental Health and the Law provides specialized mental health services to both inpatient and outpatients within the criminal justice system and people with a serious mental illness who are involved with the legal system. For those who are found unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible, treatment and rehabilitation is individualized, focused on recovery and community reintegration and provided by a multidisciplinary team. Athena has been an inpatient of this service for 18 months.

During her journey to wellness, Athena was able to participate in a photoVoice group offered to NBRHC patients twice yearly.  “Often individuals suffering from a mental illness may not be able to adequately tell their story in words,” says Tamara Dube Clarke, photoVoice facilitator.  “Through photoVoice our patients are able to capture and communicate a message in a way that empathetically engages people.”

In this particular photoVoice: Focus on Addictions, participants gave insight into the darkness they faced, how they conceptualize their circumstances and their hopes for the future. Participants met as a group for 10 weeks, where they discussed the photographs they had taken, developed narratives for the photos and shared amongst each other the pain and joy they experienced during their journey. An important component of the photoVoice group is the public display, aimed to educate and bring awareness to members of the community, family, friends, caregivers and policy makers.

Athena’s message is clear.  She shared the darkest part of her addiction, capturing a moment in her life she felt lost. The black and white photograph she took was of an empty stroller. The narrative is “because of my addiction, my son was taken from me. I lost a piece of my heart.”

Her moment of recovery was captured by a full colour photograph representing her and her son, who is now 8 years old. She described the photograph as “Found”.  Because of my recovery, I am reconnecting with my son, receiving and giving unconditional love. I found a piece of my heart.”

North Bay2For Athena, these photographs are worth much more than a thousand words. They have cost her time with her son, but they are worth everything; being reunited her son, the hope for a brighter future and a commitment to living sober. “This group has made me realize that my son is what I am doing this for,” says Athena. “It has taught me how powerful reconnection is, and how hard I will work to change and maintain my health.”  Athena is currently working with her team of care givers to become well. The hope is that she will be discharged in the near future, reunited with her son and be able to care for herself and him.

This program, photoVoice has been a part of the patient experience at NBRHC since 2008.  Over 75 participants have had an opportunity to share with us, the community, family and friends the very real and powerful experiences of what living with a mental illness really means. A documentary exists for each of the photoVoice groups the NBRHC has conducted and they are available on the NBRHC youtube channel.

For more information on how to conduct a photoVoice group in your hospital, please contact Tamara Dube Clarke at NBRHC.