Sunday Times columnist India Knight and the charity MIND got into a good old ding dong yesterday after she wrote a column (which I have posted below) on the slew of celebrity memoirs revealing the author to have had depression.
As the row kicked off, she and her supporters sought to justify her piece by saying it was more about celebrity bandwagoning than mental illness. However, she made two really important – and deeply irresponsible – observations (in the headline above) and it was these I focused on when Time to Change asked me to respond to the article.
This is what I wrote … India Knight can be a good and interesting columnist so it was a real shame to read her ill-informed, irresponsible and plain wrong views on depression in The Sunday Times yesterday. I know columnists have to scrabble for attention in a crowded, over competitive market at a time the reputation and sales of newspapers are falling. But her dive for the lowest common denominator was sad to see.
Once you get through the sense that she views depression as a lifestyle choice of the rich and famous, who want a medal for having the ‘bravery’ to speak out about it, you are left with two main points of view in her piece: there is no stigma around depression; and ‘everybody gets depressed.’
The second statement reveals her ignorance of the fact that depression is an illness, not a passing mood. Would she ever think to say ‘everyone gets malaria … everyone gets cancer … everyone gets AIDS’? I doubt it, because she knows these are illnesses that strike some but not all of us. To say that ‘Everybody gets depressed’ suggests that though she says she knows depression is an illness, in truth she does not really accept that.
‘Everybody gets fed up’ would be accurate. I am fed up today because of the weather. I am fed up because George Osborne is Chancellor and cannot see the irony of the huge wealth he inherited on ‘coming of age’, and his attack on the something for nothing culture he claims to be dismantling by making the poor a lot poorer. I am fed up that Burnley keep taking the lead in matches only to throw it away. I am fed up that a builder in the street is currently making too much noise. I am fed up that in part because of the stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness, reinforced by columns like India Knight’s, mental health services are being cut piecemeal around the country, with barely a flicker of protest of the anger that there should be as the most vulnerable get hit by the cuts. All of this makes me fed up, angry, not depressed.
I do not always know what makes me depressed. What I do know is that I am currently on medication for a particularly bad bout which struck a few months ago, without warning and with real venom, which plunged me into an emptiness and mental pain I have known before, and which my psychiatrist felt required a sustained period on a new drug that I had not tried before. I get fed up taking it, because I hate drugs, but the depression has definitely eased, all but those closest to me have probably not noticed anything, and I reckon within a few weeks I will be off it, until the next time.
As for India Knight’s claim that stigma does not exist, what I would say to that is this: I have no qualms whatever about being open about my mental health problems, not least because Time to Change is campaigning for genuine parity of understanding and services in physical and mental health. Added to which I am not short of opportunities, not worrying about losing a job or looking for a new one. But many who suffer from depression are not so lucky. So when they are ill with depression, they are more likely to call in and say they have the flu, because people understand that; or say they have to take their Mum to hospital; or their child is off sick. All because they are not always sure how their employer or colleague will react. And that, dear India, is stigma, and I can take you to meet people who say the stigma and taboo leading to discrimination in the workplace can sometimes be worse than the symptoms.
Or perhaps in addition to a response from me, you will get one from the nurse I met recently who felt compelled to ‘hide’ six months of her life from her CV, six months almost a decade ago when she was off with chronic post natal depression, because she was not sure how her NHS employer would react to it as she went for promotion. The NHS no less, reinforcing stigma and taboo.
Time to Change has been campaigning for years to challenge negative attitudes and behaviours towards people with mental health problems and we are thankfully starting to see changes emerge. But for every step forward, there can be a step back, and that is what her article showed. It was unhelpful, potentially damaging and certainly showed we still have quite a way to go.
HERE is a link to Time to Change and here (below) is India Knight’s column from Sunday
Just when you thought misery lit had crawled back into its dark cellar …
Are there people left standing who still believe that depression is “taboo”, and that by speaking about their own they are bravely shining a light – “just a little beam, but I do what I can” – into the darkness?
I ask because in the past six weeks alone a slew of autobiographies – the blockbuster ones published to coincide with the fat, money-spinning Christmas market – have put depression at the centre of their narratives.
From David Walliams to Antonio Carluccio, from Victoria Pendleton to Jack Straw (never mind the politics; where’s the crying?), via Edna O’Brien and Pamela Stephenson . . . the list goes on and on.
Where depression isn’t central to the plot, and where the book is a novel, the author’s struggles with mental health are revisited for publicity purposes, as with JK Rowling, who to promote her new book has spoken yet again about the depression she has endured in the past.
I understand: depression is debilitating. It is an illness. Carluccio says he has attempted suicide six times, which is not a thing I or anybody else should make light of. But there I was happily dancing a cancan to celebrate the demise of the misery memoir – everybody suddenly remembered being locked in a cupboard as a child: grimness guaranteed, no detail too grotesque or traumatic, £14.99, ideal gift – when I realised that my delight was premature. All that’s happened is that depression has replaced child abuse as the go-to, sales-boosting topic.
The thing is, whereas you could argue – I wouldn’t, but you could – that misery memoirs did indeed shine a light on a taboo subject and, by doing so, removed some of the shame or stigma that victims of child abuse often feel throughout their lives, the same simply isn’t true of depression. There is no stigma.
It is true that, long ago, depression was perhaps viewed with suspicion, or not taken as seriously as it might have been: certainly I remember Stephen Fry having a meltdown in 1995, walking out of a West End play he was starring in and disappearing to Belgium, and I remember that people thought he was just an actor having some sort of hissy fit. This was not the case: Fry was ill – and has been volubly explicit about the illness since.
I’m sorry for them, just as I’m sorry for anyone depressed, but, really, do they want a medal? But not only has the light been shone; it has become a blinding ray. We know. We understand. There can be few people reading this who haven’t either suffered from depression or had a friend or family member who has.
Figures released by the NHS last month showed that one in seven adults in Scotland is on antidepressants. In England, nearly 46.7m such prescriptions were issued last year, and the figure is expected to keep rising.
Few people think those who suffer depression are weirdos or oversensitive flowers, or just need to pull their socks up and get a grip. We get it. Every other celeb “has bipolar”, and we are sympathetic, even when the behaviour engendered by “my bipolar” looks more, to the untrained eye, as though someone has spent a fortnight snorting cocaine.
But we don’t say this. We are so well trained, so adept at respecting depression, that we say, “Oh dear, poor thing – the illness, you know.”
Where my sympathy wavers is when depression is used as bait, or as the gilt on the lily. I get this too, at one level: the publishing industry is in such dire straits that telling your story is no longer enough. There needs to be a journey, a trajectory, and as much darkness as possible amid the light, so that you come across as a normal person. This seems a shame, given that the whole point is that you aren’t: the best celebrity autobiographies – Rupert Everett’s two brilliant volumes come to mind – are full of gossip and jokes and champagne and outré behaviour.
Everybody gets depressed, and one person’s depression is not a million miles from another’s. It also seems a given that depression is an adjunct of fame, at some point and for some period – it’s so obvious that it’s not necessarily worth wasting three chapters on. Of course fame is weird and discombobulating.
What irritates me is the idea that by “speaking out”, celebrity autobiographers are being heroically honest and somehow doing us all a favour. They’re not merely celebrities telling their stories; they’re now campaigners, if you please – brave pioneers in the battle to smash the taboos surrounding mental health. But there are no taboos in this context.
Taboos exist, certainly, but they concern people who are eating from bins and shouting at pigeons. They do not concern privileged, talented people who are depressed in the considerable comfort of their own home, with the best drugs regime that money can buy. I’m sorry for them, just as I’m sorry for anyone depressed, but, really, do they want a medal? Going on and on about depression can seem an awful lot like narcissism: “I’m so interesting that even my illness is fascinating.” You long for someone to say: “I felt like crap for two years and then I got over it.” Which is, by the way, what normal people do.
Occasionally a campaign starts up on social media with the aim of removing the “stigma” from these issues. I can’t say it enough: there is no stigma. People have complicated thoughts about physical disability, even post-Paralympics. They have complicated thoughts about schizophrenia, or about children with obvious disabilities, and complicated thoughts about relatives with dementia. Celebs feeling depressed? Not so much.
It’s just not that interesting. I could bore on, for example, about my claustrophobia – not that I am inserting myself into the Carluccio bracket. I don’t like closed, windowless spaces and I can’t get into small lifts. There you are. Sometimes it’s a pain, but stairs exist and I’m working on it. At some point I will once again be able to sardine myself into a tiny lift without feeling that I can’t breathe. The end.
I read the other day that claustrophobia is a form of mental illness, so there you go: my own heroic – or utterly ordinary and uninteresting – revelation. I wonder if I could get a book out of it.