Depression: the New Black?

Dr Michael Shooter worried it might become a Designer Disorder.


Sorry to bang on about this.  

(It’s why an editor at the Telegraph once dismissed my CV with a derisive, ‘is depression all this bloody woman ever writes about’.

No actually, I wrote back, and enjoyed his subsequent squirming; somebody ought to have explained the Reply to All facility to him, I giggled.)

But banging on about madness is part of what I do (a recent bio ran RM is a mum of three and freelance journalist who lives in (not so!) splendid isolation in the west of Tanzania. She writes, she walks, she swims. Her primary writing interests lie in Africa, motherhood and mental illness …)

I began years ago. When it dawned on me, in a perverse sort of Eureka moment, that Depression is part of what defines me. It’s been around now for longer than it hasn’t.  And so I embarked, as one of a myriad measures I have employed since as some muddy prophylaxis, on an extended exercise which put me in touch with all sorts of people who live with madness. Shooter, then president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, was one of them.

I wanted to know what he thought of celebrities who outed their mental illnesses.

He thought, he observed, that there might be a danger there in manipulating a very real, very painful illness into some kind of Designer Disorder. Like a bag from Mulberry. Only not as useful.

And I am reminded of his words this week.

Google, because I thought if I asked it to deliver a daily prompt, it might preserve both Mum and me (in which case it hasn’t worked), reminds me daily of the proximity of Depression (thought given current economic climate, sometimes the prompts spell financial doom, not emotional fallout, and sometimes they articulate the passage of a storm, which just goes to show what an inappropriate word we have chosen for a crippling condition if it can be employed in Wall Street and the Met Office alike). 

And in the last few days Google has told me  Emma Thompson says work saved her from ‘going under’ in her battle with depression, Corrie’s Beverley Callard is to write about her battle with depression, Angelina Jolie suffered from postpartum depression just like Kendra and  Katie Price described her own tussle with the Black Dog in one of the four autobiographies she wants to turn into a movie about her life.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that every single one of these woman fabricated their illness; I’m just saying I don’t believe they all suffered the condition in its warts-and-all guise: I think some were just briefly disappointed with life, exhausted by fame. I think some might even have dressed a passing miserable phase up as mental illness in order to buff a fading star?  After all, we aren’t expected to be happy all the time.

I vacillate between feeling irked by red carpet treading film stars and globe-trotting-to-tour singers who wheel their experiences of Depression out (a publicity stunt? a means to garner our sympathies so that we will watch their movies, listen to their albums, buy their really, really badly written books? I can’t help being suspicious of their recently evolved compulsion to Raise Awareness) and feeling oddly relieved that  somebody, somewhere is highlighting an illness that few acknowledge – despite the fact it is estimated that one in four, one in six, nine in ten of us (depending on who you listen to) will fall prey to it.

Our celeb-idolizing culture means the masses will hear what Ms Price and Ms Wilkinson have to say and as a result Depression might enter its vocabulary, society might begin to absorb a modicum of what it means to be depressed (even if it doesn’t grasp it rarely comes designer clad).

See, I’m not sure the Page 3 models and movie stars and pop singers – and subsequently the media – dress the illness quite as somberly as it deserves: Depression doesn’t arrive at the Priory attired in immaculate Armani, shod in Jimmy Choos, clasping a Prada (or Mulberry for that matter) handbag whilst coyly hiding behind enormous Gucci sunglasses. It’s habitually less attractive: Marks and Spencer sweat pants with washing machine fatigue, a pair of old slippers, scuffed at the toes. No need for a handbag – Depression doesn’t get out much and never wears lipstick – instead shaky hands clutch a soggy tissue which alternates between blotting bloodshot eyes and wiping a streaming nose. And it frequently lacks the wherewithal to seek a private consultation, rather the tearful, awkward encounter with a GP who’s overstretched and mightn’t have the time to sit and listen.

And until they do, dress it down, I fear it won’t be taken as seriously as it needs to be.

And yet, and yet … Depression has been manifest in the minds of the good, the great, the beautiful and the brilliant for millennia; Aristotle observed that “melancholy men, of all others, are the most witty.” French novelist, Marcel Proust, thousands of years later, agreed with him, ‘’Everything great that we know has come to us from neurotics. They alone have founded our religions and created our masterpieces. Never will the world be aware of how much it owes to them, nor above all what they have suffered in order to bestow their gifts on it.”

But so now, now as my connection to my mother is stretched to unbearably-too-silent-tenuous, because a text message requires more interest, more energy than she can summon despite her daughter’s far away pleas to Stay In Touch Ma! I have to try especially hard to believe people with shiny lives who profess to having had the gloss taken off by the hard edged experience of Depression really mean it.

16 Responses to “Depression: the New Black?”

  1. R. Sherman Says:

    There tends to be a “Cry Wolf” mentality among people, who self-diagnose every setback or circumstance as “depression.” The true nature of this horrid condition and its ability to debilitate even the strongest of individuals is what needs to be understood. Minimizing it or turning it into the “disease of the week” on satellite TV, just prevents people from taking it seriously.

  2. nolagringa Says:

    Yes, there should be different terms for it. Depression as your mother suffers is very different than the “situational depression” that besets some of us others.

  3. Iota Says:

    When you have a mo, google Anthony Field, who is one of the four Wiggles (they are possibly a little out of your time-frame and geography for you to have come across them very much). I respect him hugely. He has been open about depression – in a job where jollity and fun is the name of the game – but not made a great splash with it.

  4. Limner Says:

    RM, I’m fuming here. My hands are shaking with anger. Some people! Ignorance is with us always. I wish “they” would read this: Then talk about depression.

    Stand your ground. The ignorant, well-meaning, and uninitiated need to be gently educated.

  5. Plan B Says:

    I think that the problem is that “depression” is a nice, easy, label for all those niggly worries, stresses and down periods that all of us have. It’s a quick diagnosis, and means that the sufferer can be put in a box (even though of course, “real” depression differs in as many ways as the sufferers of it do).

    When S&A were about four months old, L was just two and I was struggling to cope. I told the health visitor about it who immediately diagnosed PND, despite my saying loudly and clearly, “I don’t have depression. I’ve seen depression and this isn’t it. I’m having a (totally understandable) tough time. It’s not the same thing at all.” I think in a way it was easier for her to put a clinical label on me, and file me away rather than sitting down with me to see about ways in which we could make life a bit more manageable. This isn’t (really) a criticism of her, as she was very caring and loving, but is maybe an explanation of why “depression” seems to have become a catch-all term, and does, as you say, deny the very real, very horrible suffering of those who have the disease in its “real” form.

    It’s interesting that maybe, as the stigma of depression, especially in its post-natal form, has lifted, maybe (at least for mothers) the stigma of not being able to cope has increased, and it is easier to admit to the former than the latter. I suspect “Jordan: life is a bit rubbish and I’m fed up of smelling of baby sick all the time” isn’t going to be anywhere near as attractive a headline as “Jordan: I’m suffering from depression” even if it is somewhere nearer the truth….

  6. journeyoutofthedarkness Says:

    “It’s been around now for longer than it hasn’t.” God – can I relate. When it starts to define your personality, and you wonder who you’d even be without this damned noose around your neck…
    You so eloquently described the plight of modern day celebrities, in all their gilded sorrow. I have noticed the frequency of which they’re “coming out of the closet” so to speak, about their battled with “depression”, and I’ve found it rather ridiculous. As Plan B said, it’s become a catch-all, which really minimizes the struggles of those who suffer from the illness.
    I do think many of the famous names who’ve died tragically young likely suffered from depression. Depression does drag you into the muck, prompting addictions, hopelessness & self-destructive behavior. That’s the sad reality – not the picture perfect kind, but the dead due to overdose kind.

  7. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Mr S, thank you. I think you’re party right: i think there’s a combination of Cry Wolf and – as Plan P suggests – a need to label every condition of the human heart, even when it’s the perfectly normal reaction, one of feeling overwhelmed, when faced with the exhausting task of three babies.

    Nolagringa, I know, there should: a better word. The ill fitting word was – apparently – selected by a Swiss-born psychiatrist, Adolf Meyer in 1905, who, in William Styron’s opinion, had ‘’a tin ear for the finer rhythms of English and therefore unaware of the semantic damage he had inflicted by offering depression as a descriptive noun for such a dreadful and raging disease’’. As a result, for the last one hundred years, ‘’the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control’’.

    I cannot come up with anything other than Depression (with a capital D). Not only because the capital letter makes it a superior noun (proper noun: proper illness) but because to me Depression, despite the fact it saps the human spirit to the point of non-existence, has always had a presence. Like a person.

  8. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Iota, googling him now … I spent whole years tracking down those who’d wrtten about their illnesses, from poets to artists, people like Lewis Wolpert and Gwyneth Lewis. I was staggered at the generous way they let me in as it were. At the eloquence with which they described their condition.

  9. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    I went there Limner, to Beading Stars: what a tragic, tragic story. That’s the reality of Depression: it can make life so painful that its victims seek to escape it in the most permanent and devastating of ways.

  10. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    journey: thank you for visiting. ‘gilded sorrow’; i think that’s a perfect descripton of something that isn’t Depression. Perfect. As you suggest, real sorry is never gilded, it’s muky and muddy and unkempt and complicated. I am glad you can feel the sunshine.

  11. nolagringa Says:

    I feel edified! I think your capitalization of it is a very good idea!

  12. Linda Says:

    What an amazing writer you are. Thank you for your very kind comment about how depression affects me. I will be back.. . But not tooled up like Arnie, obviously.

  13. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you nolagringa. Capitalization was the best I could do: it’s not a good word though, is it?

    Linda that’s very kind, thank you. I love yours and Lyns Breaking the Silence site, well done.

  14. Linda Says:

    Thank you RM, I am very interested by this post.

    I sometimes wonder if I am naive and simplistic in ways I hadn’t expected and this post makes me think that again.

    In the recent years that I have been able to recognise that my behaviour over previous years at times was due to an illness, I have spent a lot of time discussing it with people.

    One of the things I have always clung on to is that however rich/famous successful you are, you can still be hit by an illness, so you could be surrounded by wealth and fame and hangers-on telling you you are the brightest star in the sky and still fall victim to a mental illness so I have discussed with people that Mel C, Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry et al are to be admired for speaking up.

    While they may lead lives that for many would be an absolute dream, they still get ill and we salute them for speaking out, at a very basic level they make my speaking out easier and for people close to me, if more high profile figures had said something earlier, there wouldn’t have been so much secrecy and guilt. I can see where you are coming from, but my gut reaction that I can’t get past is that if we perhaps begin to lump all “celebrities” together as possibly flaunting an illness to boost PR, aren’t we going to help create more secrecy and discourage those in the public eye from ‘raising awareness’? – I know how trite ‘raising awareness’ can sound but with hand on heart I do think it matters here.

    To be devil’s advocate and take it to the extreme could this mean that that only people who live in grinding poverty are “allowed” to suffer and only their suffering is to be believed? Why shouldn’t Angelina Jolie have suffered PND? What is to be not believed about a lady from Corrie taking time away from the cameras to recover and then come back and admit what she had gone through to help others? I am just thinking aloud.

    But as you talk about depression being a ‘designer’ illness, I begin to wonder if a day will come when celebrities will speak up about having schizophrenia, psychosis or OCD.

    Perhaps then feelings of depression ‘being the new black’ could subside?
    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post.

    Please can I link to your ‘remembering the salt’ post on Breaking the Silence? It will stay withe me.

  15. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    please do link my salty post linda … And btw, I did forget it … the salt … no, we should not lump celebs together, that many have suffered very real depression is indubitable, that brilliance and mental fragility are often partners is a given, I would just be sad if real pain was ever used as an excuse. Do you see what I mean. Or, as PlanB suggests, if a diagnosis of Depression were used to whitewash situations where life was hard but manageable which, as you understand, isn’t what Depression is about. Sometimes life is difficult or sad or testing and our ability to cope is challenged, I would hate if mental illness were used to explain those times, for it would undermine the real pain of it all.

    And breaking silence is a wonderful thing in its honesty and accessible, wonderful

  16. Tattie Weasle Says:

    Having been open a then gagged then open again about depression in a very small way I have a feeling that we just have to grin and bear it. How else will we be able to get anyone to listen?

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