In light of the nominations for Mind’s media awards, I’d like to take this opportunity to dox myself and say that I wrote the below, which ran anonymously in Quench 136 towards the end of this academic year. Thanks, everybody.
As I write this, I’m speaking to a friend of mine who I’ll refer to as Ryan. A giant of man, he attends a drama school in London and possesses all of the qualities a stage director would look for in one of Shakespeare’s kings. He’s intelligent and attractive, and when placed in the right atmosphere, he displays a sense of humour that far outstrips my own. “What people don’t understand,” he says, “is that counselling, medication and coping methods aren’t a cure. They just allow you to hang on.”
Asking to remain anonymous, he also suffers from depression. A poorly understood condition, the reason I’ve asked my name to be left off this article is because both he and I are part of an unseen minority; sufferers can be your best friends, your partners, or your worst enemies. They can be the people who you walk to lectures with, the people you pass by in the street, or even the people delivering lectures. In that respect, my identity doesn’t matter, as sufferers can be anybody, and for all I know, they could also be you.
There’s quite a good chance of that, too. Mental illnesses afflict one in four British citizens, with depressive conditions making up a majority of cases, and most people will experience what they might describe as a depressive condition at one point or another. Many familiar names have suffered from depression at one time or another, including Stephen Fry, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln.
Despite this, mental illness is stigmatised to the point of being almost totally absent from public discourse. In the minds of many, it is easier to rationalise a double-dip recession or a decade long war than it is to address something so visceral; the economy is formless and war is largely sterile. Conversely, mental illness occupies the same space as cancer, serving as a stark reminder that there are some threats we can only hope to defend ourselves from.
When I first began talking about depression, responses ranged from uncomfortable conversations to flat denial, and I frequently encountered the notion that the condition “didn’t exist.” This lack of perception comes not from lack of medical documentation, but from how difficult depression is to define. It is not simply feeling sad, as some assume, but a total absence of happiness, and describing it is akin to describing a colour; without experience, it is difficult to convey without endless comparison.
As a condition, it can be deeply enfeebling, and its effects, humiliating. It is closely related to anxiety, and so the stakes of socialising can feel overwhelming. Its symptoms are physically draining, and both getting to sleep and getting out of bed can be monumental tasks. Sufferers will frequently lose interest in the things they love; food will lose its taste, music will begin to sound like noise, and, on some days, the world will lose its colour.
Characterising somebody with depression as somebody who is “just sad” is akin to describing somebody with anorexia as “just hungry.” Depression operates on a level far deeper than people realise, and is probably best described as a sense of emotional poverty. It manifests differently across individuals, with Ryan describing his sense of displacement. “I live in a different dimension to everybody else, [...] I feel invisible, yet in the way.”
In my case, I berate myself for my failures, whether real or perceived. Regardless of my agency, failed friendships are my fault. Every social faux-pas is lacerating, and every poor impression I make is a reflection of an uglier person that I project upon myself. I started writing a novel around four years ago, and, as long term creative projects tend to become a part of their creators, it became a part of me. Over time, it became something akin to a tumour, mutating into a twisted monument to my incompetence.
Of course, my life is not without its successes – but as in the case of food and drink, depression renders you unable to appreciate things you should be able to enjoy. I feel as though I’m holding myself to an impossible standard, but that to be judged on the same ground as everybody else, I have no choice.
It’s irrational, and it’s this irrationality that makes the condition so difficult to understand for outsiders. People often respond to my unhappiness by listing all the things I have to be pleased about – and, indeed, if you’re reading this, you most likely live in a developed nation. Benefiting from the fruits of free civilisation, what right do any of us have to be unhappy? This paradox is perhaps the most tragic aspect of depression, because sufferers are largely aware of the positivity – it is something that is impossible to reconcile with facts alone.
Despite how bleak I make it seem, both Ryan and I are the sort of people who you wouldn’t describe as depressive characters. I’m loud and brash in a social setting, and Ryan is an actor; we’re both confident people, and we both strive to be seen that way. However, while the condition’s symptoms are largely invisible, when contextualised, its effects and its outcomes are not; it can render people irrational and emotionally fragile. Nine out of ten prisoners suffer from some form of mental illness, and Britain has the highest rate of self harm of all countries within the EU.
The darkest of all possible outcomes, studies have shown a strong correlation between mental illness and suicide. That isn’t to say that all mentally ill individuals are suicide risks, nor that all self inflicted deaths are the result of mental illness. Suicide is spoken about even less than mental illness at large, and is one of the few topics that still seems to be ‘off-limits.’ In the scant conversations I’ve been involved in where suicide has been the topic, however, people often take an overwhelmingly cynical view: that suicide is a sign of weakness, or that it’s a selfish act.
I don’t think it’s that simple. Like mental illness, suicide reminds us of an uncomfortable reality, if not one of the most uncomfortable; by itself, suicide perhaps the scariest word in the English language. Friedrich Nietzsche described it as a potent anti-depressant, the thought of it – and of escape – being a “powerful solace.” Speaking to The New Yorker, a victim of child abuse spoke of it as a method of “killing the false self that’s so hard to live with.”
My father went through a period where he spoke to me about wanting to end his life, and I’d be lying if I denied considering it myself in the past. Suicide is a special sort of martyrdom; it is at once both deliverance and absolution, and can hardly be considered selfish. It is the process of giving your life in the hope that people will recognise who you tried to be in spite of the flaws that you couldn’t live with.
The idea of suicide should not appear to be an intimate possibility, nor should it be romanticised. Instead, it should be the most foreign of all choices – a distant reminder of our mortality, and nothing more. It may be reassuring to think of it this way, but what of the reality? Suicide is the most frequent cause of death for men under the age of 35, far outstripping the much-publicised mortalities resultant of traffic accidents, crime, and drug use.
My father has since recovered (he had just left a patently abusive relationship where he was the victim), and I think that both Ryan and I have too much to live for to let our lives go. I have been on the path to recovery for a long time, and I challenge Ryan’s notion that medical help does little more to cushion the fall. Both the NHS and the services offered by the university are such that those who need to speak to somebody can do so. Unfortunately, I fear that what little dialogue there is on mental illness has created a poisonous atmosphere, where those in need of help are discouraged from speaking out about their problems.
This is more a problem in the United States, where public healthcare is seen as a controversial topic. Many ascribe the recent spate of mass shootings across the country to a widespread undercurrent of mental health problems that are going unaddressed, both in terms of public discourse and availability of treatment. Author Liza Long wrote a heavily republished editorial piece following last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary entitled “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” She spoke of the parallels between her son’s problems and those experienced by the shooter, the aforementioned Adam Lanza, and the struggles experienced by families across America in dealing with these problems alone.
She called for a “meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health,” describing it as the only way the United States could “ever truly heal.” While this is a problem undoubtedly more profound across the Atlantic Ocean – where guns are available, and there is no NHS – I would suggest that we need to have a similar sort of conversation. Not because I’m going to open fire on a school, or because I’m planning my suicide, but because we’re ignoring the elephant in the room that prompts these problems.
The recent passing of Margaret Thatcher puts this into a strange sort of perspective; scholars have noted that while Thatcher will always be better remembered for her economic legacy, one that people often ignore is how she changed society. Amy Davidson wrote about Thatcher’s passing for the New Yorker, noting how Thatcher had come to be seen as an evangelist for an ideology “disdainful [...] of those who couldn’t manage,” and it is largely undeniable that Britain has become a fiercely individualistic society since her premiership.
Things have not been easy over the last three years; a global recession has left even the perfectly sane doubting their own future and the security of those they care about. An unspoken cost of society’s steady turn inwards is that those who do have difficulty managing live in a society that no longer has any interest in their welfare. My concern is that we may be sleepwalking into a world where Britain is addled by a similar set of problems as America; one where the people we care about are victims of an unseen force as a result of our own negligence. But what can we do to combat reticence? If a school shooting isn’t enough to prompt a national debate on the other side of the ocean, what will it take for us?