Tomorrow I am speaking at a dinner at Nottingham University to raise funds for Mental Health Research UK. Now you’ve heard of Cancer Research. You’ve heard of Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, and if you are very wealthy you still have time to be one of the 50 donors giving £50k to celebrate the charity’s 50th anniversary.
But Mental Health Research UK struggles to get profile and struggles to get funds. For every £1000 spent on cancer research, £26 is spent on mental health research. Yet one in four people will suffer from a mental illness at some time in their lives. There is a huge cost to the economy and to people’s lives, both sufferers and their families.
A report in The Guardian today suggests the one in four figure may be a conservative estimate when considering women and mental health. Good to see it on the front page, because the more open we are about mental illness, the easier it is to raise the funds and debate the issues in a way that better informs public debate.
The Times does a six page spread on men and depression today to coincide new guidance being published by Mind and the Men’s Health Forum. Writer Tim Lott, academic John Sutherland, comedian David Baddiel and journalist Robert Crampton all have lengthy articles in the Times on their depression. I am in there too, and below is the article I wrote in full.
‘A counsellor I know told me that her busiest times are the week before Christmas and the week after the New Year. She said depression seems to rise at times when the pressures are all to be jolly (Christmas) and optimistic (New Year) but the real feelings of many are neither.
I understand that totally. Why, I have asked myself often, and asked psychiatrists too, did I feel depressed on the night of Labour’s 1997 landslide victory? Answer, possibly, because of the pressure to feel the same way as you think everyone else around you seems to be feeling. Better answer, perhaps, is that there doesn’t need to be an answer. For depressives, depression just is, like the weather. Some days good, some days bad. Some days sunshine, some days rain.
If you read my diaries (volume 2, Power and the People, out later this month, plug over) you will spot a trend which seems to confirm the counsellor’s view that Christmas and New Year are depressive hotspots. This year all was well, and still is. That makes it hard to describe depression for others. I compare it with women and childbirth. How could you possibly go through that again after doing it once? Because pain has no memory. I find it is the same with depression. When I am not depressed it is hard for me to explain what it is like. I can’t really remember. The best I can do is to say it is like being dead and alive at the same time. You feel empty. Energy supplies are low. Getting out of bed is a struggle. Seeing the good things in your life, though your rational mind knows there are plenty, seems impossible. Time, which normally flies, seems to take forever to pass.
Whenever a depressive cloud floats in and takes over my mind, my partner Fiona tends to ask ‘what triggered it?’ It is hard to tell. As for dealing with it, the main thing I have learned is to hold onto the insight that, for me at least, it will pass. It usually takes a few days. Sometimes, if it goes on longer, it requires medication and though I don’t like taking anti-depressives, I have adopted a ‘needs must’ approach.
All depressives will be different and I can only speak for myself. I do find exercise helps. I have also noticed a decline in the frequency of my depressive bouts since writing a novel about mental illness, All in the Mind. I think there was something therapeutic about trying to find creative expression for some of the more negative experiences of my life. Openness helps. So has the reaction of others who said it helped them understand their own depressions and that of loved ones.
Indeed I think we would all be helped, depressives and non-depressives alike, if we were more open about mental health generally. We all have it, the same as we all have physical health. If we have flu, we have no qualms about saying so. If we break a leg, it is clear for all to see. If a friend or relative has cancer, we vaguely know how to respond. Yet mental illness remains something of a taboo. In my work with the Time to Change campaign I have met mentally ill people who say the stigma caused by that taboo is sometimes worse than the symptoms.
I was very lucky to have had a succession of bosses who were broadly sympathetic to mental health issues. After I had a breakdown, having left the Mirror for Today newspaper, Richard Stott, my old boss at the Mirror, took me back. When Tony Blair asked me to work for him, I told him in detail about my breakdown, my drink problem and my depressions. ‘I’m not bothered if you’re not bothered,’ he said. ‘What if I’m bothered?’ I said. ‘I’m still not bothered.’ A lot of employers could learn from that.
I only once ducked out of a briefing because I felt too low, and my deputy stepped in. But for many, it is far easier to phone in and say you have flu, or that your daughter or mum needs a lift to a hospital appointment, than to admit the truth. Men also find it far harder than women, for some reason, to admit to a GP that they have depression. But the fact of concealment, and the fear of the reaction, merely adds to the sense of this being a taboo subject.
For people like me, Stephen Fry, or Ruby Wax, being open is not that hard. We’re not short of options on the professional front. But I totally understand why, filling in a job application form to be a teacher or a nurse, or as a young graduate starting out on the career ladder, someone might think twice about admitting to depression. Not because they think themselves incapable of doing the job. But because they are unsure how the employer will react. We’d all be better off if we could all be more open.’