The first time I became aware of it was when my grandmother started suffering from what was then referred to as “trouble with her nerves”. Luckily, her depression was short-lived and she was soon back to her ebullient self. But since then, I have known dozens of people who have suffered from bipolar disorder, stress or panic attacks and I’m sure that’s not unusual. The number of people diagnosed with some form of mental illness keeps rising; in 2011, anti-depressant prescriptions rose by 11 per cent to 46 million and while some would put this down chiefly to the pathologising of the distress caused by normal life experiences such as bereavement or divorce, the long hours, financial hardship and insecurity caused by the economic downturn is bound to be taking its toll.
Yet the stigma surrounding mental illness remains. The millions of pounds invested in awareness-raising campaigns such as See Me in Scotland and Time for Change in England may be making a difference – an evaluation of Time for Change showed there had been an 11 per cent drop in discrimination in the first five years – but there has been disappointment that the “wholesale shift in attitudes” campaigners hoped for hasn’t happened.
While employers’ attitudes have improved, a significant proportion still believe those who suffer from a mental illness should disclose it before taking up their position; yet at the same time, fear of losing their job means those who are struggling to cope are less likely than ever to seek advice and support.
Even where there is no discrimination, there is a residual awkwardness and lack of understanding over how best to communicate with those who are affected by mental health problems. Many of us still ask depressed people why they’re sad or tell them they’re blowing their problems out of proportion. Or we’re too embarrassed to mention their problems at all; we cross the road to avoid talking to them or try to steer the conversation to safer ground like football or the latest TV series.
This reluctance to confront the problem head-on is especially strong when it comes to suicide; no matter how often we are told that if we’re worried someone is suicidal the best thing to do is to ask them outright, it’s difficult to shake off the fear that mentioning it might put the idea into their heads.
This is why it’s so important that Stephen Fry is prepared to talk about his experiences. The president of the mental health charity Mind, he had already told how he attempted suicide after walking out of the West End play Cell Mates in 1995 – an episode which led to his diagnosis.
But last week, in a televised interview with comedian Richard Herring, Fry gave the most powerful insight yet as to what it’s like to live with a mood disorder. During his manic days, he said: “There are times when I am so exuberant, so hyper, that I can go three or four nights without sleeping and I’m writing and I’m doing stuff and I’m so grandiose and so full of self-belief that it’s almost impossible to deal with me.” But when he is depressed he can be going “ha, ha, yeah, yeah” on QI while thinking: “I want to f***ing die”.
Talking for the first time about a further suicide attempt last year, Fry said he was lucky a producer had found him in time. “Now you may say ‘why would anyone who has it all be stupid enough to want to end it all?’ but that’s the point,” he said. “There is no ‘why’. It’s not the right question.”
Fry is not the only celebrity to have spoken out about mental illness. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tony Slattery have discussed the challenges of living with bi-polar disorder, while writer Marian Keyes and Alastair Campbell have talked freely about their battles with depression.
The willingness of those affected to share their stories is crucial, because contact with someone who has a mental illness, either directly or through the media, is one of the most effective ways to change perceptions. In the wake of Fry’s admission, Mind was inundated with calls, all of them supportive of his action.
Such honest discussions go a long way to redress the damage done by misleading portrayals of mental health problems. News coverage has come a long way since The Sun ran its ‘Bonkers Bruno Locked Up’ headline in 2003, but journalists, like everyone else, can still be careless in their choice of language, casually dropping pejorative terms like “nutters” into their copy. And for every feature which tries to destigmatise mental health issues there will be one which reports a suicide in a way likely to fuel copycat attempts.
Ironically, the trend for speaking out may have led to a two-tier system of mental illnesses, with those endorsed by celebrities seen as acceptable, even glamorous, and others less so. While tolerance and understanding of bipolar disorder has grown, schizophrenia, which has no high-profile ambassadors, continues to be misunderstood, with sufferers seen as potentially dangerous, a perception fuelled by the focus on violent crimes committed by people with the condition.
Still, with more than 6,000 people killing themselves every year in the UK, the more suicide is talked about the better. Perhaps as a result of Fry’s approach, a few more people will have the courage to broach the issue with friends or family – and at least some of those lives may be saved.