Public's attitude to depression needs to change


Comedian David Walliams’s candid account of his suffering can help to destigmatise illness, writes DAVID ADAMS

IN RECENTLY released extracts from his upcoming autobiography, Camp David, author/actor/comedian David Walliams revealed that he has tried to take his own life on a number of occasions.

Apparently he first attempted suicide when aged 12. His latest attempt was nine years ago. It required a great deal of courage for Walliams to be so candid about the periodic bouts of deep depression that have plagued and sometimes threatened his life.

He would have known that for the foreseeable future he will be asked in every interview to explain and elaborate on these revelations, and that reference will be made to them in every pen portrait and feature article concerning him.

In his private interactions, as well as in the eyes of the media and the public, his tendency to depression and the suicide attempts will now partly define him. Yet this may well have been his intention. I suspect that Walliams, like Stephen Fry before him, has made a conscious effort to try to destigmatise a particular mental illness by revealing he is a sufferer and describing the depths of despair to which his illness has sometimes taken him.

If that is the case, he is to be doubly admired for his candour. Depression is among society’s last great taboos. Consigned by fear and ignorance to the shadows, it is the ailment that still dare not speak its name. Any attempt to nudge it towards the sunlight, into the realms of public understanding and genuine acceptance should be wholeheartedly welcomed.

Unfortunately, that hoped-for destination is far distant from where we are now. Consider, for instance, the tenor of much of the media reaction to the Walliams revelations. Most newspaper headlines and many reports, while not overtly unsympathetic, spoke of Walliams having admitted rather than disclosed that he has tried to take his own life.

This suggested blame on his part. The Daily Mail even wrote of Walliams having revealed a “darker side to his personality”. What darker side? This was not a rapist or a child molester being reported upon, but someone who suffers from depression.

In the same Daily Mail report, which was accompanied by photographs of Walliams and his wife going out to dinner, there was the following observation: “Writing openly about his depression has clearly been [a] cathartic experience for the children’s author and he seems on top form after admitting to his problems. Far from hiding himself away after the startling admissions, the charity fundraiser has decided to hold his head high and take his wife out on the town.”

Hold his head high? Why shouldn’t he? It isn’t as though Walliams has done anything to be ashamed of. Moreover, purely on the evidence of him going out to dinner with his wife, and being able to raise a smile for the cameras en route, the journalist felt able to deduce that Walliams is all but cured of whatever ailed him: seeming to suggest that there couldn’t have been much wrong with him in the first place.

Walliams is a very popular figure with the public, admired as much for his charitable work as for his writing and comedy. His popularity will not be diminished in the slightest by what he has written about his depression and suicide attempts. This is heartening, but its significance should not be exaggerated.

That people like Walliams and Fry can feel safe enough to speak openly about their illnesses is a beginning, but no more than that. They are the beneficiaries of a deliberate compartmentalising (dual standard?) on the part of the public which is not without precedent.

Not so very long ago, deep public affection for an undeniably gay entertainer in no way meant that the vast majority of people would be accepting of a gay or lesbian person into their everyday lives. And this, I believe, roughly equates to the current public attitude to depression.

Unfortunately, it will probably prove much more difficult to shift the critical mass of public opinion to a position of genuine acceptance of depression than it ever was with homosexuality.

Simply put, all forms of mental illness frighten the life out of people to a degree that homosexuality never did. (And this is without considering those who dismiss depression as mere attention-seeking and self-indulgence.)

To gauge how far removed our supposed enlightened societies are from treating depression in the same way as they do other illnesses, one need only make an educated guess at the answers to a number of simple questions.

How many employers would be willing to offer an interview – never mind a position – to someone who had declared on an application form that they suffered from depression? How many job applicants would feel secure enough to make such a declaration? How many people would feel able to confide in their friends or work colleagues that they suffered from depression?

Thankfully, David Walliams did not manage to take his own life, but many people do: there were 552 deaths by suicide in Ireland in 2009. How high must suicide figures go before depression is destigmatised?

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