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Two very different stories of depression

Posted on 17 November 2009 | 5:11pm

Back to the depression front today, with two very different stories to report from different parts of the world.

First from Australia, where senior politician Kevin Foley has held an emotional press conference to ‘confess’ that for several years he has been treated for depression. South Australia’s Labour deputy Prime Minister and finance minister, Foley ‘came out’ after Opposition spokesman spokesman Steven Griffiths questioned his mental fitness to do the job.

Then from Germany, and a dreadful article by someone called Lucy Kellaway of Financial Times Deutschland. Yes, that’s Deutschland as in Germany, where following the suicide of depressive German goalkeeper Robert Enke last week, you might have expected a bit more sensitivity.

Instead, Kellaway wrote a glib piece which concluded – totally wrongly – that is it ‘best to stay schtum’ about mental illness in the workplace. ‘The truth is that given our ignorance and squeamishness about mental health, it is probably better to shut up about it,’ she says. If this is ‘the truth’, God help us. Ignorance and squeamishness are there to be challenged, not pandered to and surely, if there is one thing Enke’s tragic death tells us, it is that being open is better than trying to keep mental illness secret.

Kellaway says she can think of only four people who have been publicly open about their mental illness – Stephen Fry, me, Norway’s former PM, Kjell Magne Bondevik, and businessman Dennis Stevenson. She says Stephen doesn’t count because he is a national treasure, I don’t count because I have a reputation for being hard and mean, and Bondevik doesn’t count because he is Norwegian! She is not entirely clear why Dennis does count and the rest of us don’t, but there we are. I did warn you it was glib.

Time to Change, the mental health campaign aimed at breaking down stigma and discrimination, has written a letter of complaint to FT Deutschland, whose headline asked ‘why does mental illness still remain taboo?’ The answer lies in articles like Kellaway’s.

It is the same stigma which stopped Kevin Foley talking about it before, and made his opponents think he could be attacked for it. If my experience is anything to go by, Foley will still get depression, but he will not regret his new found openness. He can also be a fifth name for Ms Kellaway to trot out the next time she embraces a subject she does not understand, and to which her article contributed nothing but evidence of how much further we have to travel before the work of Time to Change is done.

  • Matt

    well done

  • Mark O

    Thank you for continuing to bring these issues up on your blog – it’s so important for people in your position to do so. I work in politics at Westminster, and have often feared the effects of my own depression and anxiety and the impact were they to ‘come out’. Your candour over your own experiences have given me hope that it is possible to work at the very highest levels despite battling these illnesses, and I hope other senior politicians and professionals will feel able to be more honest in future too.

  • Paul Marshall

    Aussie politics is tougher than most, so he may well be taking a risk, but if it is as you set out, maybe Griffiths will get the opporobrium he deserves and Foley the support. Either way, I just had a look at the FT Germany piece and it is as you say awful.

  • Malcolm Pearse

    I saw your documentary on BBC2 and I found it genuinely helpful, as the son of someone whose father has had a number of breakdowns. eventually I persuaded him to watch it too and I think he found it helpful too. we should not be prescriptive but I do think openness helps, and I for one am appreciative of yours, Stephen Fry’s and others.

  • Peter Palladas

    FB Copy:

    The original article was in the FT London, October 4th, on the back of Andrew Marr’s questioning whether GB ‘took pills.’ Seems to have passed beneath the radar then.

    LK does specialise in ‘glib’, though ‘pointless’ might be the better phrase here. There is plenty of meat on any bone about the depressive impact on mental health of some working environments, and she does at least have one good point – quoting doctors who say it is often not the people at the top of organisations who suffer the most, but often the more junior ranks. (Chauffeurs not CEOs more at risk, it seems.)

    I know that my own episodes of chronic depression give me insight into the world of work to which I belong (adult social care funnily enough). But I also know that revealing it is a complete ‘no no’. I wish I could ‘bring it to the table’ sometimes, not keep it under wraps; but I’m not daft enough to presume it will be well received. Less a stigma thing, more a totally pragmatic (from the organisation’s perspective) thing. Too target driven to care, that’s the way of that world now. (And I wonder how that has come about, eh!)

    So a mild curse on LK for her insensitive frivolity, but a much more astonished rebuke to FT Deutschland for re-printing her article just now. I hope Robert Enke’s widow does not take the FT, but if she does then I equally hope she gives its editor and LK a good slap.

  • Alex Sewell

    Very nicely written Mr Campbell.

  • Frank

    You are just a load of fruit and nut cases.

  • Claire

    I totally agree, perceptions can be changed when there’s more information out in the open. The more of us who are open about suffering from depression, the better general understanding we’ll be able to build. It’s sad when people undermine it, but there’s people doing that on almost every topic you can think of.

  • betty curtis

    Alistair

    From what I can see & read on here you are helping a lot of people with mental illness & making it less of a taboo subject.

    The more people like yourself ie in the public eye that are brave enough to share their experiences it will lessen the stigma for sufferers & could help with recovery.

  • Colin Morley

    An excellent piece, cogently argued. Nothing but praise for your blog today Alastair. I hope more people will complain to the FT Deutschland. How crass can the editorial group be to allow this to be published after the tragedy of Robert Enke – unbelievable!

  • Viviane

    As well as Kevin Foley we have had a few high profile people in Australia talking very publicly about their depression. The Premier of Western Australia resigned a few years ago because of depression.

    Jeff Kennett, former Premier of Victoria is the Chairman of Beyond Blue, which addresses issues relating to depression. For all his faults, Kennett has done a great job about bringing mental health issues out into the open in Australia.

  • Jack

    I must say that I didn’t find the ‘opening up’ process particularly beneficial. Most people seem happy to ‘understand’ and support you but they have trouble really understanding the problem. I think it’s important to realise that most people see the world as being populated by other people whose minds work in the same way as theirs. Maybe they are more of one thing and less of another, but essentially they believe everyone thinks like them. It is only natural for them to assume therefore, that someone who suffers from depression is just like them, but not as good at dealing with being fed up etc. This, is my experience, leads them to assume that the person is somehow inferior.
    That this problem would be to some extent negated by better understanding is undoubtable. But I think this is far from the end of the problem because, in asking people to really understand, you are asking them to change the way in which they rationalise the world.

  • Hazico

    Hi- to anyone still reading this- and Alistair:

    I’ve just heard an excellent discussion on “Off the Page”,Radio 4- with today’s guest psychologist, Oliver James.(8/12/09.)
    One of the topics- the effect of mass consumerism/marketing and increased materialism on an individual’s identity, sense of self, and mental health.Also, a breakdown of society and community has occurred,leading to isolation and depression- and rates have gone up massively since 1979- surprise surprise!

    Oliver James talks a lot of sense about modern times- so I’m off to the bookshop for Xmas!