Society has evolved an unspoken rule to shun depression

Sometimes you want to kill yourself

Sometimes you want to kill yourself. You're sick from sadness, you're fed up being a misery-guts, you figure your friends will leave if you show them how you really feel. But you don't. You get out of it, painfully, perhaps using medication or counselling if you can afford to. A few months later you're back to the self you thought you'd lost. For the moment.

That's one kind of depression. Not the worst. The worst is a torture that doesn't let up, a lightning storm in your soul which burns like you're tied to a flaming stake.

Some of the 504 people who killed themselves last year may have been experiencing that torture. But virtually every person kept it to themselves.

One was a farmer who believed himself personally responsible for the trouble everyone else recognised as a crisis in agriculture across Europe. He thought he was doing his family a favour.


Then there was the 21-year-old, known as a life-and-soul-of-the-party type, who left a note for his parents explaining how he had bought extra bread and sliced ham so his funeral wouldn't put them to too much trouble and expense.

Or the 26-year-old with a history of depression who cleaned her room for the first time in years so her mother would have one less thing to do.

The 1998 figures are the result of our total failure to address and debate issues of mental health and welfare, and to read them in the context of the society we are all so busy creating. If rates of depression are a measure of social ease, then signs are that society is profoundly uneasy.

By 2020, according to the World Health Organisation, mental health disorders will become the biggest illness facing Western societies. And where change happens so fast people can hardly keep up with it, as in Ireland, the scenario is potentially lethal.

Why people kill themselves is a mystery which devastates families more than any other kind of death. Last year an estimated 2,500 people were touched in this way.

The question is what we can do about it. Depression is a weasel word for many different conditions, but even if we have abandoned the belief that it is the punishment of a sinful soul, we could hardly stigmatise it any more ruthlessly than we do.

Telling people to consult their doctors assumes that the medical profession is adequately trained, which is not always the case, and that depressed people take a rational approach to their illness.

But when you are depressed you may not identify your condition correctly, and you may feel such self-disgust that you don't consider yourself worth treating in the first place. You will blame your own character, as will others. Especially if you are a man.

Depression rocks the boat. It's so threatening to so many interests that we have evolved an unspoken rule to ignore it. We press the State to sponsor anti-drink-driving and anti-speed campaigns but ignore the fact that death by the violence of suicide now outnumbers death on the roads.

AN increasingly pharmacological culture may end up drugging us all to keep us happy, yet for now no mechanisms are in place to identify potential suicides, or to support those who are bereaved. Only a few highprofile people have had the courage to admit that depression is a part of their lives.

Why does the State hold back from waging a war on depression? They think it our fault, too. Depression is still viewed as a character weakness, instead of as an illness, and the State concludes that depressives are failures in the game they think they own.

Where we are strong, they are weak; where they can't hack it, we pride ourselves on our self-control. So much as we may profess compassion for those whose psyches are tuned to the rot of the times, as psychologist Oliver James argues, we can't afford to take their experience on board.

Which is why it is particularly fatal for men, a whopping 84 per cent, according to the latest figures.

Things have changed, but some gender stereotypes still hold. For right and wrong reasons the culture permits women to expect and express pain: women are labelled weak characters when they show hysterical or stridently angry feelings. But because they are expected to exhibit such weakness, the flaw is considered to reside in their sex.

Add to that the major transgression in any act of violence perpetrated by a woman, and you may conclude that in this case at least old stereotypes protect her from the worst excesses of depression.

Meanwhile, women's sadness is measured by the significantly higher numbers who will attend doctors and be treated in some way for long-term depression, even in cases when it is their lives, rather than their biochemistry, which need to change.

Men are different. From conception to death, they are more vulnerable. In war, they are more expendable; in peacetime, they are expected to achieve within a very narrow context. The systems which traditionally excluded women always excluded most men, too.

But whereas previously men were sure of their place in the pecking order, now economics means that their expendability as workers is clear to all.

Young men are particularly strangled by the narrow band of masculinity permitted to them: their courage and creativity is reduced to driving a car at excessive speeds or supporting the right team in the right game.

Then they are expected, with their British brothers, to work the longest week of any European country, and be grateful for the chance. No job security and huge pressure to compete.

And while the same is true for women, most remain connected with groups such as family, girlfriends, children. Men have not been freed from those myths of masculinity which see a personal reduction in other ways of life. In that old myth, communicating is itself a weakness if the subject is personal or shows how vulnerable you can feel.

One conclusion of these generalisations is that suicide rates by women will increase if their identity is forced into the same tight mould of work and economic status.

Images throughout the culture shout that happiness is a natural state. (Unhappy? Your fault. Buy me, drink me, pop me into your veins.) It is not.

But neither is unhappiness, as the depressed person secretly suspects. Sam Beckett, a long-time depressive, put it better than anyone.

"No matter, try again, fail again, fail better."

You don't have to die to be yourself.