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Update: Vogue Portugal has pulled the cover from sale and apologised. Read more.
Vogue Portugal’s July/August issue is facing a backlash for fuelling stigma and trivialising mental health.
The cover, which is one of four shared as part of the magazine’s “Madness Issue”, shows a naked woman in what appears to be a psychiatric hospital, hunched over and hugging herself while being washed by two nurses.
A photo of the cover was shared on the publication’s Instagram account, with the caption: “It’s about love. It’s about life. It’s about us. It’s about you. It’s about now. It’s about health. It’s about mental health.”
But many are appalled over the messaging. Journalist, author, and mental health campaigner, Poorna Bell, who lost her husband Rob to suicide five years ago, says the cover is “deeply problematic” on two counts.
“Not only does it trivialise mental health by calling it the ‘madness’ issue,” she tells HuffPost UK, “the image itself will be troubling and triggering to so many.”
The image perpetuates the stigma of psychiatric hospitals, says Bell. It also “dehumanises” anyone who has been – or needs to go – to hospital, she adds, recalling a time when Rob, who was struggling with depression and addiction, went to a psychiatric hospital.
“The stigma around it was so great we didn’t feel able to tell anyone, and he felt deeply ashamed at needing to go to one – despite the fact that it was medical help he really needed,” she says.
“That’s why it’s important to break down the stigma around it, and Vogue Portugal should be utterly ashamed of what they’ve done as it will reinforce all of that stigma.”
Vogue Portugal defended the cover, saying its intention is to “open up the topic of mental health, and bring to the discussion the institutions, the science and the people that are involved with mental health today”.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Sarah Vohra has called on Vogue Portugal to remove the issue from sale, apologise and educate themselves. “This is everything that is wrong with the portrayal of mental illness in the media,” she tweeted. “It is not something to be glamourised or falsely and damagingly portrayed.”
Meanwhile Molly King, a student mental health nurse who has previously been sectioned, says she’s “disgusted” with the cover. “As a person with lived experience of mental illness and having spent nine months in hospital as a result, I found this cover beyond hurtful,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“Mental illness isn’t a fashion trend, nor something to be glamorised. I want to know why they felt this was acceptable and what they were aiming to achieve by publishing such damaging content both through the images and terminology of ‘madness’.”
“Mental illness isn’t a fashion trend.”
Jo Loughran, director of Time to Change, which is run by mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, says it’s “disappointing” to see the outdated depiction of what looks to be a psychiatric hospital – especially on the cover of such a high-profile magazine.
“Mental health isn’t a fashion statement,” she tells HuffPost UK, echoing King’s comments. “The shame and isolation that many of us with mental health problems experience is only made worse by imagery like this which fuels people’s lack of understanding.”
It’s well known that negative attitudes towards mental illness can stop people from getting the help they need. Time To Change says the shame and silence can be as bad as the mental health problem itself. And compounding negative attitudes towards mental health problems can lead to discrimination.
Loughran says while it’s great to see Vogue Portugal trying to raise awareness of mental health in this issue, “doing so behind this cover is not acceptable”.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this,” she says. “Some really strong stories that may include great content and have educational value are sometimes weakened by the use of inappropriate images.”
Photographer Elliott Morgan branded the cover “extremely disrespectful” and said he couldn’t believe it was approved. Bell agrees. Having worked as a journalist for a number of years, she says the cover would’ve been “signed off by so many people” – including those at the most senior level. “It beggars belief that not one of them thought it was wrong.”
However, Loughran adds: “While this cover is incredibly disappointing, it’s encouraging to know the public will no longer stand to see mental illness used as a gimmick. When people feel empowered to call out stigma it can send a powerful message to the world – that stigmatising mental health problems is never acceptable.”
In its full statement shared on Instagram, Vogue Portugal said: “Our July/August issue is themed ‘The Madness issue’, with four different covers each designed to address different dimensions of human behaviour, during a time when the global pandemic has brought people to confinement.
“One of the covers portrays a hospital scene where the model is being taken care of by her real life mother and grandmother, shot by photographer Branislav Simoncik. Our intention is to open up the topic of mental health, and bring to the discussion the institutions, the science and the people that are involved with mental health today.
“The cover story explores the historical context of mental health and is designed to reflect real life and authentic stories, inspired by deep research of hundreds of reportage photographs from some of the most relevant and famous documentarists who have captured mental health hospitals. Inside the issue, features interviews and contributions from psychiatrists, sociologists, psychologists and other experts in the field.
“Mental health forms just one of the topics explored within the issue and is not linked to the theme of madness but instead covered as an aspect of human emotions and behaviour. We acknowledge the significance of the topic of mental health and our intention, through visual storytelling, is to shine a light on the important issues of today.”
Vogue Portugal states the July/August issue is available from July 10.
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).