Psychology Ph.D. Dissertations


How I See Things: Older Adults Living With Serious Mental Illness Describe Their Experiences Using Photovoice

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Catherine Stein (Advisor)

Second Advisor

John Dowd (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Dryw Dworsky (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Dale Klopfer (Committee Member)


Life expectancy rates for adults living with serious mental illness (SMI) continue to rise, but relatively little is known about how best to help older adults with SMI live meaningful lives in the community. Using a participatory action research framework, the present study examined social and community experiences of older adults living with SMI in a mid-sized urban city. A total of nine older adults (M = 60.22 years; SD = 3.15) diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder engaged in a six-week photovoice study. Each week, participants photographed different aspects of their community and shared them with other participants at weekly group meetings. A final session consisted of a public display where photos and descriptions were shared with the community. After project completion, participants engaged in individual project evaluation interviews. Data for the research consisted of participants’ photographs, captions, and verbatim transcripts of discussions from group meetings. A total of 11 themes were identified using content analysis to describe participants’ photos and group discussions of their experiences. These overarching themes included: Physical Space, Interpersonal Relationships, and Accessing Resources, and these themes were further categorized into descriptive subthemes. Overall, participants spoke about salient experiences with community integration, significant relationships with other people, and impact of needed resources in their lives. In particular, photovoice participants described challenges of navigating public transportation, importance of the psychosocial clubhouse where they all hold membership, and appreciation for positive evolution of social relationships with friends and family. Participant accounts were further characterized by the degree to which their experiences remained consistent or changed over time. These older adults also provided recommendations for future changes in their local community. Project evaluation results suggest that adults reported gaining knowledge about themselves and their community, felt a sense of comradery with other older adults with SMI, and found value in sharing their experiences as a result of participating in photovoice sessions. Implications of photovoice methods and present research findings for working with older adults with SMI to facilitate meaningful community engagement and social change are discussed.