Lucy Baxter – The Mental Abuse Matters Project: Creative Practice in Animation and Live Action VR

How can a complex inner state so turbulent and nebulous that it often remains a mystery to the person experiencing it be translated into a visual medium such as film, virtual reality or animation? The spectrum of mental abuse is wide, covering intimate, parental, peer, colleague and elder relationships. Emotional abuse is considered to be any nonphysical behaviour or attitude that is designed to control, subdue, punish or isolate another person through the use of humiliation or fear (Engel 2002). Emotional abuse can take many forms, from verbal abuse to coercive control, parental alienation to what is commonly termed “gaslighting,” which is “a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs” (Petric 2018, p. 1). Emotional abuse affects people from all social, economic, cultural, age and gender backgrounds. It is often a precursor to physical abuse, family breakdowns, financial destitution and has been associated health problems such as anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and self-harm (Tracy 2012, n. pag). While this form of abuse is only now beginning to be acknowledged by society, it is poorly understood by professionals in the medical, caring, law and justice communities. As a filmmaker with firsthand experience of mental abuse and navigating the uncomprehending medical and legal system, I set up a charity called Mental Abuse Matters to make creative pieces to articulate and interrogate the experience of mental abuse. My intention as an artist was to explore different means of creative expression and to discover how they inform the understanding, empathy and retention in the audience. Retaining an awareness of what may constitute an abusive interaction, as well as empathy for the person experiencing it, are important components of prevention. If we are aware of how our contempt, passive aggression or controlling tendencies have a profound affect the self-identity of those on the receiving end of these behaviours, we may learn to ‘check’ the offending behaviour and foster healthier interactions and break the cycle of abuse.

Part of the challenge of translating the process and experience of mental abuse into a visual form is the phenomenon’s subtle and intangible nature, both in terms of the perpetrator’s behaviour and its effect on victims. The medium of animation allows for artistic interpretation of mental states, to visualise the intangible in ways that live action cannot. Unlike physical violence, emotional abuse leaves no physical marks. Public behaviour is often very different from private behaviour, which makes objective witnesses rare. What may seem from the outside to be an ideal relationship can, behind closed doors, be a disorientating nightmare. The victims themselves are often confused about what they feel and experience that articulation seems all but impossible. The line between what constitutes a ‘turbulent’ relationship and an abusive one is frequently blurred, and when concerns are voiced by a victim, friends and family may dismiss them. Often, victims are vulnerable and lack the capacity to speak, as is the case with children and the elderly. Alternately, they may feel they have too much to lose, as with cases of workplace bullying from a person in a more senior position or when a victim is economically dependent on their partner. Shame is a common feature and fosters silence, even in people who are normally confident, articulate and capable – they may feel deep shame that, as they see it, they have ‘allowed’ this to happen. Those who have left an emotionally abusive relationship may be reluctant to discuss it, as they don’t wish to revisit the trauma, are afraid of the perpetrator or have children to protect. The combination of these obstacles makes it particularly challenging to cast the main character of a film and to represent their experience in a creative and emotionally accurate way.


I decided to make an animated short film based on an anonymous first-person testimony as the first creative piece for Mental Abuse Matters, for several reasons. When dealing with stories of this nature, it is crucial to protect the victim and their confidentiality, and animation allows for anonymity. The actual person does not share an indexical relationship with the camera, as they would for a live action documentary. Nor are the characters concealed or disguised, as they would be in live action to protect their identity. Rather they are embodied in animated form, allowing for simultaneous engagement with and distance from the real person.  Secondly, I was interested in exploring the question of representation and emotional reaction in the viewer. As Annabelle Honess Roe argues, animation is the ideal medium for evocation, for capturing a feeling or psychological state:

animation, however, is increasingly being used as a tool to evoke the experiential in the form of ideas, feelings and sensibilities. By visualizing these invisible aspects of life, often in an abstract or symbolic style, animation that functions in this evocative way allows us to imagine the world from someone else’s perspective. (2011, p. 21)

I have worked many times with the filmmaker and psychologist Andy Glynne, who created the Animated Minds (2003) and Troubled Minds (2009) series to animate the internal experience of mental illness, and who has been an influence on my own creative practice. Does the distance afforded by an animated character and scenario allow for a more relatable creative work, when compared to a live action representation using actors? The notion of the “uncanny valley” (Mori, 1970) is useful here, in that successful computer-generated imagery resonates best when it is lifelike but not too lifelike, so that the audience can be carried along and accept the experience without being alienated by the representation of the characters.

The question remains, however: is it easier for viewers to cope with and process traumatic narratives when they are represented in animated form? Nea Ehrich argues that animation can function as a mask that both conceals and exposes:

animation can replace live action footage and thus choose to conceal through stylized representation what would otherwise be seen directly […] these depictions may seem inauthentic or as a disguise but can also be used to illustrate what would otherwise remain invisible, such as the personal perspectives and memories depicted in Waltz with Bashir. (2011, n. pag)

We must also examine the identification of archetypes of behaviour and their representation in the narrative. For example, does an emotionally abusive relationship have common patterns that both the victims and perpetrators in the audience might recognise, and moreover, could this influence their own awareness and behaviour? Is it possible to educate viewers about what healthy relationship patterns are, by demonstrating unhealthy ones?

The first step to answer these questions was to develop a 5-minute animated film on mental abuse and to find a contributor who had experienced it and was willing to tell their story. This was a difficult task, and many potential contributors ultimately decided that they were not ready or did not want to take the risk. Eventually I met someone who had recently left an emotionally abusive intimate relationship. As a film maker, this presented an ethical challenge, as it was clear that the experience was still extremely raw for her. Was it too soon to expect her to revisit and have perspective on the trauma she had just experienced?

A central ethical concern for the Mental Abuse Matters project is the concept of re-triggering, wherein viewing or hearing testimony about emotional abuse causes the viewer to experience or relive emotional states associated with their own abusive encounters. As I discussed my own experiences with her, we found many patterns in common, which assisted us to form a collaborative bond and reminded us both of the importance of raising awareness and to help prevent the proliferation of these relationship patterns. From an ethical standpoint, I made it clear that there was no pressure on her to share her story if she did not feel ready to, and we agreed that she would take some time to think and to write out her story, to begin her process of articulation. We stayed in touch and met again a while later to discuss what she had written and to begin to form it into a script. The contributor is a writer herself and this session proved to be an extremely fruitful collaboration; by the end, we had a powerful script which took the form of a letter directly addressing her ex-partner, looking back on the abusive relationship from the point of view of someone who has escaped and is beginning to re-form her identity. The term ‘re-form’ is significant here, as this is not necessarily a process of rediscovery, but rather, a person deeply changed by an emotional experience who has new insights into herself and others. Once the script was completed, we recorded the voiceover. The narration had a raw authenticity that was exactly what I was looking for and proved the effectiveness of first-person testimony for relating a story to an audience. Some phrases were striking and helped me to envisage the animation process, for example:

  • A sick feeling in my belly
  • Feeling guilty for no reason
  • I had no minutes for my own anymore
  • You told me I’d never have to feel lonely again. I never thought I was before I met you.

The anonymous contributor was very happy with the finished project, stating that

I fully support the work and efforts made by Mental Abuse Matters and think is a vital and very important initiative.  Initially I was very nervous to get involved due to the nature of the project and aftereffects of trauma I had experienced from leaving my previous relationship. Lucy made the space safe and encouraged me to speak in my own time. It was a very empowering experience to shape my voice and share in an artistic way outside of therapy. The animation is really beautiful and I felt that the words I shared where honoured. I am very grateful for that. I feel really proud of myself for getting involved and very grateful to Lucy and the team for their care, kindness and talent in this project.

The next task was to find an animation style that would do justice to the narrative. I knew I did not want a ‘clean’ style of animation such as the pristine, computer-generated images that are produced by Pixar, for example. I felt that the form itself had to represent a sense of messiness, confusion, sketchiness, a tension in the solar plexus, the feeling of identity being rubbed out and being uncertain of the ground beneath your feet. These are the key components of the victim experience. I chose the Belfast-based company Enter Yes as I felt that their animated work had the kind of creative soul I was looking for – they chose projects on subjects that mattered to them and used the sort of hand-drawn or painterly techniques that I admire, and I was keen to replicate with my project:






image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

Enter Yes was also clearly interested in social issues, which was important in terms of their motivation and engagement, as my budget was limited. My key creative goal was to articulate emotion and to make a visceral piece rather than a cerebral one, as it can be difficult for people who have not experienced mental abuse to genuinely empathise with it. I wanted the viewer to really feel the “sick feeling in my belly” that the narrator describes, and the sense of utter desolation that results in the passive aggressive withdrawal of affection, a sense of “you went from always texting and calling me, holding me all night […] to nothing” (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009). The emotional beats of the story, and its overall atmosphere, were paramount. When I first met with Kris Kelly, Director of Enter Yes, I spent some time describing the patterns and effects of emotional abuse, to enable the team to get inside the experience emotionally, which was crucial for them to be able to creatively represent it. Once the production phase was underway, we met regularly to discuss the narrative and animation style. I was able to describe firsthand the physical and emotional states invoked by passive aggressive or gaslighting behaviour, and each member of the team took the time in group discussions to ask detailed questions. The company’s culture meant that interest in this kind of subject was already embedded in their ethos, which made these conversations enjoyable and productive. We discussed the film’s emotional texture, animation style, story beats and characterisation to begin the process of story boarding. We agreed that hand-drawn animation would be the most effective means to convey the victim’s experience, which gave the piece a sketchy but artful aesthetic.







image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission






image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

The first storyboards gave a sense of key images, motifs, colour schemes and style (for example, the feeling of being caged/boxed in, disorientation, identity distortion, control).

Kris and the team suggested that some of the narrative be represented by abstract patterns, and we discussed in some detail how this might work. This was an important creative decision as throughout the finished piece there is a rhythm of interlinked figurative and abstract animation, which forms a discernible pattern as the narrative progresses. This pattern helps the viewer to understand what is happening without heavy-handed signalling.  As a team we were keen not to be too ‘on the nose’ with spelling out the visual narrative. To create a piece with real integrity and gravitas, it was essential to keep it subtle.  The abstract forms add another visual layer, signals key changes in emotional tone and allows for the repetition of the visual motifs.







image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

Characterisation was the next creative hurdle to clear. I met with the team to review their initial character sketches. What struck me as significant was how quickly they ‘got’ the male character – his combination of masculine charm and menace was present in the first drafts and he arrived more or less fully formed. The female character was not quite what I had in mind, and we discussed how she might be represented differently. I had initially wanted her to be softer, more relatable and to be more of an ‘everywoman’ than the character they had initially sketched, which was quite stylised. The relative conventionality of physical appearance was important as it sends the message that this kind of abuse is not limited to any one kind of person. An affluent and independent career woman, for example, is not any more immune to an emotionally abusive relationship than a financially dependent stay-at-home mum might be. Someone who has no history of abuse can still find themselves embroiled in this kind of toxic partnership.  These truths also led me to wonder about archetypes, and how we think of men and women in intimate relationships. Is the concept of an attractive abusive man a kind of social norm, which is more easily accessible to those who have not necessarily experienced abuse? Does this concept constitute an impediment to understanding the breadth of emotional abuse in society, which does not always manifest as the stereotype of male perpetrator and female victim? There was thus a creative and ethical tension for me in this characterisation. Emotional abuse is not an exclusively male-to-female dynamic in heterosexual relationships. Although there are many more statistical examples of men mentally abusing women, there are an increasing number of public cases where women are engaging in abusive behaviour. The recent high-profile court case between actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, for example, reveals a pattern of verbal and psychological abuse on her part, revealed by audio tapes, and her assumption that her accounts of his would be believed over his accounts of hers (Hills 2020). Moreover, social norms of masculinity may deter men from reporting this kind of abuse (Robinson & Segal 2019). Although there has been some recent analysis of the dynamics of abusive same-sex relationships, I refer to heterosexual intimate partnerships as this is the dynamic we portrayed in my film. Concerns that I was potentially reinforcing stereotypes was mixed with the need to be relatable to viewers, and I felt that this male character was a powerful representation of this particular narrative. The female character needed to tread a fine line between feeling like she could be any woman from any background and being clear that she was a traumatised victim as a result of this particular relationship. It was also essential that the audience understand the possibility and benefit of leaving an unhealthy relationship.

The female character:






image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

The male character:






image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

Once we had realised the characters, we discussed the pace of the narrative, its atmosphere, the style and emotional representation of the piece. This was an iterative process, and I was keen to give this talented team of animators a degree of creative freedom and the ability to test their own ideas while remaining faithful to my own vision. Designing the narrative and the imagery was also a fairly protracted process as everyone involved was also working on other projects. Occasionally momentum would be lost for this reason; however, it also allowed time to review and to have new ideas to contribute. One key challenge was how best to express passive aggression, as opposed to overt aggression. The various forms that passive aggression takes are not culturally familiar relative to depictions of overt aggression and are less obvious in their manifestation. While verbal abuse is a clear transgression that can be heard and seen (with facial expression), for example, withholding behaviour or withdrawal cannot be seen or heard – but is keenly felt. Similarly, the subtle control of a victim’s behaviour through unseen punishments like coldness and silence or low-level, coded humiliation in company, are difficult to depict. Gaslighting is a particularly corrosive perpetrator practice in an intimate relationship as it often preys on pre-existing vulnerabilities or insecurities in the victim, while perhaps appearing relatively innocuous or ‘jokey’ to the external observer and even, sometimes, to the perpetrator themselves. Over time it is “death by a thousand cuts”; the drip-drip of undermining behaviour and verbalisations lead the victim to believe they no longer have a grip on reality or are incapable of negotiating the world and, paradoxically, can lead them to lean more heavily on the perpetrator. This can increase isolation on the part of the victim, which is another tactic of the perpetrator as it allows for further control.  These were behaviour patterns that we were tasked with representing in a visual way, and some specific stylistic tropes were employed.

For example, the changes in visual perspective have a disorientating effect on the viewer:







image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

A doppelgänger character was used to convey feelings of identity confusion and disassociation:






image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

A continuing motif conveying a sense of unease was the depiction of a tangled mass extending from the victim’s stomach, which demonstrates how this unease eventually penetrates and overwhelms the atmosphere of a relationship and becoming akin to a physical presence:






image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

Subtle forms of coercive control and their debilitating effects are represented by a shadow flitting across the frame, or a disembodied hand engulfing the female character:






image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

Abstract sequences morph from symbols associated with love to the chaotic forms and lines of distress. The heart begins to break apart, and forms the ball of tension that will dominate the narrative:






image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission







image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

Isolation and public humiliation are illustrated through subtle differences in facial expression and body language, as depicted in this group scene:






image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

We use colour in different ways, for example to give an aesthetic colour ‘pop’ to a scene, or to code emotional states:






image © Mental Abuse Matters; used with permission

The soundscape is also an important factor to convey atmosphere and tone. Kris designed the soundscape to veer between unease, distress and calm.


The film was shown online including on The Conversation website, on the Mental Abuse Matters website, the Men’s Advisory Project (MAP NI) website and via the Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT) iplayer. Due to the distancing restrictions imposed by COVID-19 at the time, physical screenings did not take place. The film received favourable feedback from Rhonda Robinson, the CEO of MAP NI, who deals with both victims and perpetrators of abuse. She said of the film, “I am absolutely floored by that piece of work. It is excellent. It mirrors exactly what I hear almost daily unfortunately. That’s really powerful work.”

The Mental Abuse Matters Virtual Reality Project

 The next step in this project will be a live-action Virtual Reality experience wherein the user is an embodied (Slater, 2012) victim, experiencing an episode of emotional abuse. The intention of this VR project is to produce a prototype that can be used as a therapeutic Virtual Reality experience for both the victims and the perpetrators of mental abuse, and a training tool for frontline medical and care staff to improve trauma care. Psychological disorders receive just 5% of medical research funding and represent 13% of the NHS’ health expenditure yet have a huge effect on the health of the general population. Untreated mental health problems account for 13% of the total global burden of disease. It is projected that, by 2030, mental health problems (particularly depression) will be the leading cause of mortality and morbidity globally (“Mental health statistics”).

Creative technologies such as our proposed live-action VR intended to provide a therapeutic and training experience have the potential to aid diagnosis, treatment and prevention, and to have a meaningful impact on people’s lives. Interventionist VR is an innovative area that can also further best practices in the immersive technology field and address the funding gap in this crucial yet underfunded area of healthcare. There are several gaps in the knowledge in this area – including the absence of practical interventions in mental abuse, the absence of live action or cinematic VR functioning as an intervention and the absence of live action film using real actors. I am particularly interested in how creative technologies can push the boundaries of both film and psychology, the points at which these two disciplines intersect, and whether technologies that might seem impersonal or disassociated from the human condition could in fact help us to understand it better to relieve suffering and improve empathy.

The production of this pilot VR project will involve a collaboration with the Belfast based VR production company Retinize, the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, some input from the psychology and psychiatry departments at Queen’s, the external partners Women’s Aid NI and MAP NI and the charity Mental Abuse Matters. The project has been funded by Future Screens NI and Queen’s University Belfast. VR has been used in the treatment of PTSD, social anxiety and phobias using the techniques of exposure therapy. This involves recreating the scene of trauma and repeatedly exposing the brain to that traumatic experience in a safe environment and has been demonstrated to halt flashbacks. (Kothgassner 2019). VR is also being used in the treatment of schizophrenia and depression in a new UK-wide study by psychologists and psychiatrists at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford (led by Professor of Clinical Psychology Daniel Freeman) to treat psychosis; at Kings College London (led by Dr. Lucia Valmaggia, Reader in Clinical Psychology and Digital Mental Health and Head of Virtual Reality Lab) to treat psychosis; and by a research team at the University of Sheffield, led by Dr. Chris Blackmore, through the Lifepath VR Project to explore dementia.

There are some precedents for using this technology with victims and perpetrators of physical violence and sexual assault, although using animated representations rather than live action. The first is led by Psychologist Dr. Claudie Loranger in the Cyberpsychology Lab at the University of Quebec. Dr. Loranger and her team of psychologists created what they call the first VR environment designed exclusively to help survivors of sexual assault. The VR experience includes virtual environments—a bar, which then leads outside to a bus stop—to help ease patients into the process. These environments are designed to be progressed through over several sessions, so that users become used to the process and memories can be triggered in a piecemeal, manageable way. The final step of their representation is a VR version of a sexual assault, in which the visuals cut to black and is represented by the audio only. The approach is based on exposure therapy, wherein those who have experienced trauma, or people with phobias, learn to cope by reliving the scarring incident or exposing themselves to what they fear.

Another project is led by Dr. Mavi Sanchez Vives at the University of Barcelona, working with perpetrators of physical domestic violence. In her study, researchers from the University of Barcelona showed that violent people often lack emotional recognition, but that a virtual experience measurably improves their empathy. Reporting on the project, Shivali Best notes, “these illusions have an impact on the participant by altering perceptions, attitudes and behaviour” (2018, n. pag). In Sanchez Vives’s project, the researchers analysed the impact of the immersive VR experience on 20 abusers and 19 control participants. The experience involved the perpetrators being embodied for the female victim experiencing the violence; or, in other words, the experience induced full body ownership illusions, so they could understand the fear and trauma such behaviour instils.

New developments in technology mean that the integration of live action video with real actors, with whom the user can interact, is now possible. In this instance, live action has an advantage over animated film, as a necessary means to generate an effective simulation of emotional abuse, as the most subtle facial expressions and body language are crucial to the experience. However, the use of live action in this context also raises complex ethical questions about the potential effects of photorealistic imagery on the user, which I am keen to interrogate and test. Once the pilot is completed, I intend to test the VR experience on a non-clinical sample of users with no history of emotional abuse, to test the prototype and gauge the users’ reactions. I will document the process, from casting the case study and workshopping actors to coding and design of the VR environment and production of the live action film, in video and written form. This process will interrogate how creative practice can enrich and inform therapeutic methods in mental abuse.


The challenge of depicting mental abuse in a visually creative way has led me as a filmmaker to explore new forms of expression, such as animation and immersive technology. I seek to create tools that are cathartic and helpful for victims on a practical level and which are helpful for both perpetrators and care professionals. I believe that this type of practice can lead to new perspectives on emotion regulation and relationships, for both the practitioner and the viewer, and will further develop an already fruitful relationship between filmmaking, psychology and healthcare.



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Glynne, Andy. (2003) Animated Minds. Mosaic Films Ltd.

—. (2009) Troubled Minds. Mosaic Films Ltd.

Hills, Megan C. (2018) “Amber Heard denies assistant claims that she was ‘regularly verbally and mentally abusive.’” The Evening Standard. Available at:

Honess Roe, Annabelle (2011). “Absence, Excess and Epistemological Expansion: Towards a Framework for the Study of Animated Documentary.” Animation 6(3): 215-230. DOI: 10.1177/1746847711417954

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Kothgassner, Oswald D., Andreas Goreis, Johanna X. Kafka, Rahel L. Van Eickels, Paul L. Plener & Anna Felnhofer (2019) “Virtual reality exposure therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): a meta-analysis.” European Journal of Psychotraumatology 10(1). DOI: 10.1080/20008198.2019.1654782

Long, J., Long, N. & S. Whitson (2009) The angry smile: the psychology of passive-aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed, Inc.

“Mental health statistics: global and nationwide costs.” Mental Health Foundation. Accessible at:

Mori, Masahiro (1970). The Uncanny Valley,” Energy 7(4): pp. 33–35.

Petric, Domina (2018). “Gaslighting and the Knot Theory of Mind.” Research Gate. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.30838.86082

Pinner and Reader, 2018 Fair Funding For Mental Health: Putting Parity into Practice

 Robinson, Lawrence & Jeanne Segal. (2019) “Help for Men who are Being Abused.” Available at:

Tracy, Natasha (2012) “Effects of Emotional Abuse in Adults.” Available at:

© Lucy Baxter

Edited by Amy Ratelle