I don’t normally pick fights with columnists and OpEd writers. Their function is to stimulate debate, so they have to write provocative stuff. But @indiaknight gets it wrong this weekend in a column that starts out complaining about celebrity memoir and misery lit, and ends up with sweeping generalisations about depression.
Knight makes three specific points that require addressing.
First: that we just don’t need to hear from famous people who’ve been depressed:
“What irritates me is the idea that by “speaking out”, celebrity autobiographers are being heroically honest and somehow doing us all a favour.”
Depression makes you feel alone, afraid, an outcast. Hearing that it is an illness that can and does affect anyone is enormously helpful. Learning that rich and starry people suffer too makes you feel less broken, less bereft. Understanding that it affects rich and poor, successful and not so successful, men and women, old and young also helps you to comprehend: this is a universal scourge. It picked you, you didn’t pick it. You really are not to blame.
Second: that there is no taboo or stigma surrounding depression:
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?
…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.
No stigma? That would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. Ask anyone with depression who has a job and they will likely tell you of a tortuous process of concealment and subterfuge. Ask anyone with depression who doesn’t have a job and they will talk about an agonising dilemma in the hunt for work: to front up and risk not getting the job, or to lie and then risk being ‘outed’ in future. And that’s just in the world of work. In our wider social circles, few people really want to come clean, particularly men. Of all the men I’ve spoken to about their “thing”, very few have been happy to be named or identified. Depression reminds me of what it might have been like to be gay in the 1950s. A nasty secret that you keep to yourself as long as you possibly can. The current incidence of depression is thought to be around three women for every man. I have a strong suspicion that that imbalance is simply down to the fact that a great number of men are keeping their wretched conditions very well concealed.
Third: that we’ve all been depressed, so what’s the fuss all about?
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.
Wrong. We haven’t all had depression. It’s around one in four or one in five. Depression is very different from feeling a bit down. It’s not that Monday morning feeling, or returning from holiday to find the house has been burgled. It’s not even the end of the affair, or the loss of a friend. It’s far more all-consuming. We’ve all had a cold, but we haven’t all had pneumonia.
Yes, we read a lot about depression at the moment. Yes, it might be irritating for those who don’t really come across it in their lives to be constantly reminded of the agonies of the most miserable species on the planet. As one critic of my book Underneath the lemon tree wrote: “Far from being the illness that t dare not speak its name, it is actually quite hard to get it to shut up.” That may be true. But it’s irrelevant. We don’t want to shut up until everyone understands that this is not a lifestyle choice or a niche thing that happens to a few wretched people in our midst but a very real, ubiquitous, debilitating, paralysing, often lethal illness that we should address and treat, not punish and marginalise.