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In praise of Stephen Fry, who should tweet or not as he sees fit

Posted on 1 November 2009 | 9:11am

When I did a documentary on my breakdown and depression last year, I said that it must be hard bordering on impossible for someone who does not get depression fully to understand what it is like. 

The best description I could come up with is that it is like being dead and alive at the same time. 

It is a feeling I know well. It is a feeling Stephen Fry knows well. It is one he has articulated so well. It is why when I wrote All In The Mind, he was one of the first people I sent it to, and typically generously, he allowed me to use some of his comments on the cover. So when Stephen Fry tweets that he is depressed, and thinking about giving up on Twitter, I join with others in assuming he is in that kind of state. I have sent him a private message. But my public message is that it is no good anyone saying, as people do, well what does he have to be depressed about, what with being incredibly successful, well-off and hugely popular?

That is not how it works. Depression just is. It comes in and takes you over and even if your rational mind knows it will pass, you feel like it is defining your reality for ever. 

It is being assumed, because Stephen made his comments in response to a twitterer who said he found his tweets ‘boring,’ that this is what triggered it. But it is almost certainly not so, that other factors will have been at play, and I doubt whether Stephen would be very happy if the twitterer in question was subject to a Jan Moir style avalanche. 

I know Stephen fairly well. He is a really nice man as well as being extraordinarily clever and talented. 

When recently he agreed to do one of our ‘Audience With’ sessions for Leukaemia Research, a packed theatre hung on every word as he recalled key episodes in his life and career. 

He talked about his bipolar depression and recalled the time life got so on top of him that he fled a play he was appearing in, prompting a huge media frenzy which, in his depressed state, he had never imagined would ensue. He might well be feeling the same now, knowing that to some extent he is ‘public property’ but wishing when depressed that he could just be left alone. 

He also talked about Twitter, and the role it was playing in changing the way people communicate and consume media. 

Coming in the wake of the Jan Moir and Trafigura incidents, he was at pains to dispute the idea that his huge Twitter following made him some kind of leader. He clearly did not see himself in that way. 

Lots of people are saying they hope he does not stop tweeting because his followers enjoy what he has to say. I would simply say he should stop it or not, according to what he wants, and try not to worry too much about what anyone else is saying. 

He knows he has got through depressed periods before, and will do so again. He knows too it is part of what makes him such a creative talent, which in turn is why so many people follow him, and worry about him too.

  • @seaninsound

    Stephen just needs to take a break from Twitter, ignore the responses and focus on doing positive things. People, oodles of people, are following him because he represents the inspiringly intelligent kind of tribe leader a meritocracy promises. Through a modern medium, he’s able to reach the hearts and minds of nearly a million people. Conversely, a medium like Twitter makes it even easier for village idiots to anonymous-ishly throw muck from afar.

    Whether he chooses to ‘lead’ or influence these people is his prerogative (no-one expects more than him sharing pictures of endangered species, some facts, some favourite quotes, tech reviews – everything else is a bonus) but there is the scope for him to make positive changes about the way people think and feel.

    Personally, I recommend he takes some time out (absence makes the heart grow fonder…), rethinks why he’s on Twitter/the Internett and, like any relationship, let things dissipate, ride out the bumps and blips in order to rekindle his love and passion for it/life.

  • George Woodhouse

    For probably the first time ever Alastair, I agree with you about something.

    I have a supremely talented stepson who suffers from depression and is bi-polar. After a number of years of struggle he is now making exellent progress with his life. But we are all (his family) constantly nervous about his vulnerability and the possibilty of him sinking into depression again. At present he is using prescription drugs which help him enormously; but previously, and in his worst years, he used anything he could lay his hands on, including alcohol, to try and remove the feelings. And with disastrous results – but which could have been much worse.

    All we can do when he is at his worst is to make sure he knows he has our uncondtitional love and support and wait for him to come back to us. And yet he is amazing – we just wish he realised just what he is cpaable of – he will eventually I am sure.

  • Sue

    “it is like being dead and alive at the same time”

    That is so perfect a description.

  • Jane A

    Two things occur to me on reading the blog. One, I worry that while most Twitterers are benign and love the contribution that SF makes to that place, it could also make for an unwanted spotlight when he is feeling low – a bit like a zoo visitor poking a stick through the bars to prod an unresponsive animal, hoping thereby to get their money’s worth.

    Second, the fact that SF is thinking of taking some time out made the front page of the Sunday Times, though they unkindly positioned it more as a retreat borne of pique after someone said he was boring. Its regrettable they have to kick people when they’re down, IMHO.

  • martin

    Couple of things.

    1. I’ll bet anything that the vast majority of peoplw who genuinely suffer from depression are NOTHING like Alastair Campbell.

    2. Yes Fry is an intelligent man – but he’s also a right-on Leftie who uses Twitter to launch cynical attacks against the Tories.

  • Brian O\’Connor

    Speaking as someone that has suffered from many years of depression, i think that Stephen will understand that for the 95% of time that he is a comic genius with an unparralelled ability to make use of the English language in the most Jovial way possible. For the 5% that he is unwell, those that dont understand the complexity of a depressed mind will put it down as a bad day, and those that understand the effects of depression, will simply understand the need to take flight until he has restored himself again…. From experience this is usually obtained by sunshine, and no stress…. As Alistair pointed out, absolutely no one can even begin to empathise with the effects of mental illness until they have experienced it themselves….

  • Judith Haire

    I only caught up with this news late today in The Sunday Times. I truly hope Stephen Fry feels better soon: Depression is just that, feeling like lead, feeling like you are trying to run through wet mud which is up to your waist. I’ve used the analogy of trying to play a guitar wearing boxing gloves. If I had the chance to talk to Stephen I’d say be yourself Stephen and look after No 1.

  • Hazico

    I’m a great admirer of Stephen Fry. I was particularly impressed by his programme on Manic Depression, and find his courage and honesty so refreshing in this day and age.
    I believe him to be a totally genuine and caring “people” person, and he is a great role model.He has an amazing ability to connect with people from all walks of life, and has a wonderful attitude.Also, his talent and intellect are awesome- but he doesn’t use it to put people down.With an amazing reputaion like this- maybe he should be a politician! We need many more Stephen Frys….
    I don’t know if he is ill at the moment- as it’s hard to believe anything one reads in the media- but if he is- I hope he doesn’t feel guilty or responsible for doing whatever he needs to do.Twitter and facebook will survive without him…it’s his life, and as for anyone,it’s important to put no. 1 first when necessary.
    I hope he realises how treasured he is by so many of us!

  • Johnsonana26

    Stephen Fry is a star and I love him! the fact the Daily Mail hates him is a bonus is but a feather in his cap!