I asked Paul how he thinks his life would have been without picking up his camera that day. He said, "I'm confident I'd have killed myself sooner or later." A harrowing answer encased in an important story.
Paul Williams and I are polar opposites in most regards. Paul's a self-confessed alpha male, adrenaline junkie, ex-soldier, ex-police officer, and all round warrior. Our lives are disparate in so many ways, and yet, here we are, both English photographers with a passion for mental health. I've spoken — albeit too briefly — on the importance of mental health to me and so when I heard Paul's incredible story, I knew it had to be told to our readers. With no holds barred and no details spared, here is his story and how photography saved him from suicide.
Abrupt Ends, Unlikely Beginnings
Born in one of the most beautiful locations the U.K. has to offer, the Lake District, you might argue Paul has an artistic side ingrained in him from an early age. His love for the outdoors and all things physical manifested deep and early and at just 17-years-old, he joined the army. After several tours of duty across the globe, Paul became a physical and adventurous training instructor, but in 1988 whilst climbing, he plummeted 100 feet and shattered both ankles. He was told he would never walk properly again, but undeterred, he not only did walk properly again, he climbed the ascent that nearly killed him within a year of his fall. This is the sort of constitution we're dealing with here: a relentless drive toward goals at all costs. Sadly, as can often be the case, an "at all costs" mentality has a propensity to try to collect the bill.
Despite becoming a gym instructor, Paul's ankles were to force him out of the military in 1993. At this point, several of his comrades from his various tours had committed suicide, and with ex-military personnel and men significantly more likely to commit suicide, this is sadly little surprise. So Paul made a sharp change in direction and one that foreshadowed the future.
I made the decision to do a mental health degree and try to change whatever it was that had led them to kill themselves. I’ve never settled for second best or doing something half-heartedly, so I set myself the target of a first-class honors which I achieved in 1997. I then worked as a mental health specialist in Assertive Outreach which focused on those people at greatest risk to themselves and others, and who didn’t want to be in the system.
While important work, upon hearing his career change, I couldn't see it sticking; it sounded tantamount to caging a creature whom had lived its life in the wild as a nomad. After seven years, Paul joined the police force. The next part of this story, I'm going to again defer to Paul's words as it is so terrifyingly absurd it could be lifted from an HBO drama.
In 2010 whilst at Bournemouth police station I had to disarm a samurai sword-wielding lady who attacked the people in the enquiry office. Having got them to safety I was left facing her with just my pepper spray which I managed to discharge into her face as the sword came down towards my head. Thankfully she dropped the sword to clutch at her eyes (there are many people who are relatively impervious to the spray) and I was able to tackle her to the ground and pin her down. A second sword was found, and it later transpired this lady had schizophrenia and hadn’t been treated for many months.
For this heroism Paul was awarded a commendation for bravery and moved on with his life, adding "I’ve been faced with much worse as a soldier, and it was something many hundreds of bobbies [Britishism for police officer] up and down the country face — or worse." As the stories of life and death came rolling past me one after another I couldn't help but feel a debt was wracking up. Perhaps it was as I knew roughly how the story ended, but it seemed inhuman to spend thirty or more years surrounded by death, tragedy, and mental health issues without accruing his own baggage that would need addressing sooner or later. The incident with the sword was to be the catalyst for change, and not one any person is ready for: a sharp decline in mental health.
The Second Significant Climb
After several weeks of broken sleep, Paul — on the eve of his 50th birthday — drove himself to accident and emergency with symptoms of a heart attack. Extreme anxiety and panic attacks are so profound and debilitating that you can't possibly chalk it up to anything other than physical defect, and one that feels life threatening. After a litany of tests, however, Paul's heart was given the all clear, but he was referred to his doctor to address "significant stress-related anxiety." This marked the end of one phase of his life, and a difficult start to the next as he was never to return to work.
Within weeks of the doctor telling him he had PTSD, Paul had a "complete meltdown and became very ill, very quickly." The next two years he disputed the diagnosis and wanted to return to the police force to do the job he loved. He recalled days in which his five children desperately needing him couldn't break through his pain and he was instead under the illusion that they would be better off without him. Reluctantly he accepted that the issue was not one to be nonchalantly waved away and could be ignored no longer. But the acceptance of that came at great cost: his future how he'd always pictured it.
I was left with the realization I would lose my job, my role and my identity. With my academic background (my thesis was on suicide) and the certain knowledge the rest of my life was going to be spent with a severe and enduring mental illness I tried to kill myself three times.
Fortunately he was not successful with these attempts on his life and thanks to a new treatment modality (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) a lessening of his struggles emerged that was sufficient enough for him to steady the ship and work on fighting for a new future. The first and important bout of this battle came in the most unusual form. A man who had fallen 100 feet, served in multiple military tours of duty, and tackled a woman trying to scythe down people in a police office with a samurai sword, the first step to building a new life for himself was field mice.
In the garden of Paul's house, under the kitchen sink window, field mice and voles would congregate under the bird feeder. One day, Paul dusted off his camera and took some shots through the window. While well-received, those shots proved to be the most important he'll ever take. I asked Paul how his life would have gone had he not have picked the camera up that day and you know his haunting answer. But he did pick it up, and soon he was in his garden taking macro images and was getting great feedback on social media as well as from his local wildlife trust. A purpose had emerged from the dark. Paul described mental illness as a vacuum and — camera in hand — he had started to emerge from it tentatively.
... mental illness likes nothing better than stasis and the absence of anything else in your life to flourish and take your every waking (and there is much waking) moment over. Photography at that time began a process that continues to this day; my sense of self, wiped out by PTSD, is being rebuilt with the bonus I now have some resilience for the inevitable relapses that come with PTSD. I lost all sense of who I was with my self-confidence and sense of purpose in life completely eroded. I had no goals other than trying to survive another day, and I spent much of the time between 2010 and 2014 as a recluse shunning the company of colleagues, friends and, much worse, my children. Creating images that not only I but other people liked gave me a much-needed boost and I began to venture further out of my cottage into the quiet lanes above me.
Photography had restored a sense of hope that we all have sitting mostly dormant in our subconscious; a belief that good things could happen to us in the future and the belief that they might. Not only that, but the crucial rebuilding of identity pairs with hope to lay foundational grounds for progress and meaning. Paul then built on that basis with mental health campaigning which he describes as "inseparable" from his photography. He now travels to both take photographs of wildlife as well as give talks on the power of photography for aiding with the treatment of mental health issues. While mental health problems have become far more openly discussed over recent decades, there's still some distance yet to travel and Paul aims to promote that change.
There are still numerous stigmas around people suffering from mental health difficulties, particularly PTSD. Paul notes that to this day, upon learning about his struggles, people's tone of voice might change, they might avoid eye contact, or many other subtle indicators of discomfort. "The most common misconception around PTSD is dangerousness; the concept that the person with PTSD is somehow a loose cannon capable of committing violence as they experience flashbacks, nightmares, and paranoia." The truth is, typically the person most at risk of being hurt is the PTSD sufferer themselves.
Photography as Treatment
It's important to note that photography as a treatment ought to be used as part of a more comprehensive plan, including assistance from medical professionals. However, photography can be a powerful tool to focus the mind, offer purpose, and importantly to get you moving and outside. As Paul mentions, this doesn't have to be far and for him it was simply his garden.
Given Paul is somewhat of an expert on the cause of mental health, I asked him to summarize his campaign and I would like to share his answer in full.
Those of us experiencing mental illness should embrace the concept asking for help is a strength, not a weakness as we’ve so often been told by society or our communities. People caring for us when we can’t do it on our own — which is often — should refuse to accept the patchwork quilt of postcode lottery care trotted out by some councils because mental health is still somehow seen as secondary to physical health. Health professionals, many of whom are overworked and on the point of burnout, should challenge the system that puts them in this invidious position in the first place — whistleblowers should therefore be better protected than they currently are.
Society as a whole needs to wake up to the fact we have a global pandemic of mental illness amongst us, and the loss of over 850,000 a year to suicide overrides any of our false sensitivities around talking about taking your own life. It’s a given getting out more will help your physical and mental health, but factor in carrying something that takes images and you have a recipe for many people to not only benefit from improved wellbeing but a chance to express themselves creatively and capture the world around them in a way that helps their mental state, improves their self-confidence, and gives them a sense of purpose and achievement.
Paul is now traveling as much as possible, giving talks, and of course, photographing wildlife. He was kind enough to send me his first book which is a walk-a-long on his journey, both mentally and photographically, titled "Wildlife Photography: Saving My Life One Frame at a Time" and he is working on a second. You can see more of Paul's work on his website or Facebook.
All images used with the permission of Paul Williams.