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Response to Stephen Fry suicide interview shows attitudes are slowly changing

Posted on 10 June 2013 | 9:06am

Apparently I have done 19,880 tweets in the few years since I joined the twitter revolution. That seems a lot to me. But I can say without any doubt at all that the one which has had the biggest response, by a long long way, was the one I tweeted on Thursday about Stephen Fry’s admission that he had once again tried to kill himself.

‘To those asking what @stephenfry has to be depressed about, would you ask what someone has to be cancerous, diabetic or asthmatic about?’

It is an analogy I have used many times, in speeches, interviews and the like. But sometimes it is the moment that decides whether something connects or not, and Stephen Fry’s interview was that moment. I sent the tweet, from my phone en route to a meeting in central London, in response to a couple of churlish comments about Stephen from others. I didn’t look again for a while, and when I did, my timeline was going crazy. Then Stephen himself did a retweet, and the craziness (on my timeline I mean) multiplied. Today, five days on, I woke up to see another overnight wave of retweets and comments.

Of course there is no science to what catches on and what doesn’t. One of my biggest retweet episodes to date came when Frank Lampard missed a second successive penalty for the first time in his career and I idly tweeted that this #neverhappenedunderLabour … whoosh … and #neverhappenedunderLabour became rather a useful way to whack to coalition for a while.

And yes, my occasional #nevertalkaboutit boasts about playing football with Pele and Maradona can usually elicit a sympathetic and/or jealous response, and every now and then I manage to hit a political tweet sweet spot (or sweet tweet spot) without even mentioning football. But the response to the tweet about Stephen dwarfed them all. I know it is possible to work out just how much traffic a single tweet generates, but it is not a skill I have. I just know this was the most retweeted and commented upon tweet I have ever done. (so apologies to all those to whom I will not be replying!)

So what does that say? One, it says something we already knew – that Stephen Fry is very popular and a big force on twitter. But more than that, I think it shows that the Time to Change campaign is gaining ground, and that messages which challenge lazy and outmoded thinking on mental health are landing on more open and fertile territory than they used to. My tweet was a response to a very small number of people who had expressed that ‘what has he got to be depressed about?’ view. The majority view was in the right place. And that suggests change.

Time to Change is an interesting campaign in that it is all about attitudes and mindset, but with an understanding that how people think about an issue dictates how that issue is handled by governments, health services, the media, public opinion. And things are changing, just too slowly for those of us who want to see genuine parity of understanding, resources and treatment between physical and mental health.

I think my second most retweeted tweet was this one, from Saturday … ‘Nobody who has known depression would wish it on their worst enemy … My @stephenfry piece for Independent today’

Again, the response was big, with tweets and Facebook likes on the Independent’s website going well into four figures. It all says we are steadily building towards the tipping point we need before the change in attitude comes, and we all look back and say

– did we really used to think depression was something you could “pull yourself together” to cure?

– did we really used to think that someone with schizophrenia was likely to be violent, when in truth someone with schizophrenia is more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator?

– did employers really think that if someone was open about a mental health problem, unfortunately that meant they could not really ‘take the risk’ of employing them?

These attitudes are still around. But the response I witnessed to Stephen’s latest frank admission re his own problems suggests they are changing and one day, provided we keep on keeping on, they will be gone, along with widespread racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other bad attitudes that good people managed to change, and make unacceptable.

Here is the piece from the Independent, with fresh apologies to Eric Clapton.

‘I felt really bad when I met Eric Clapton at a Test Match at Lord’s a couple of years ago. Not bad as in depressed; in fact I was rather happy. But bad in that since March 3, 1996, I have always associated Eric Clapton with deep depression, and a desire to match up dead feelings inside with an external reality – aka a suicidal thought.

It wasn’t his fault. He was his usual brilliant self, delighting thousands in a packed Albert Hall. It wasn’t my fault either. I was just depressed. Seven out of ten depressed. I grade my depressions. Eight and a half is can’t get out of bed bad. Nine is can’t open my eyes, dress, shave, brush my teeth. At seven out of ten, with Clapton getting the rest of the crowd going, I could not hide how low I felt. Conversation was impossible. Other people’s enjoyment and laughter drove me down. Any attempt to draw me in served only to push me further away. I recorded in my diary that half way through I said I was going for a pee, and went off on my own, hanging around outside. I was ‘just disengaged, dead inside, and desperate to get home. It was a real “life is a bitch and then you die” moment.’

That was the moment I thought of when I heard Stephen Fry’s observation that sometimes he can be laughing and joking as he presents QI and inside he is thinking ‘I wish I was fucking dead.’

I wished I was fucking dead when Eric Clapton did Layla. Again, no offence Eric, and I felt especially bad that it was his concert that was driving me down, he having suffered what I imagine to be the greatest loss of all, that of a child. But when the depressive downward spiral hits, there is nothing you can do to stop it, and everything you try just seems to make it worse.

I knew I shouldn’t have gone, but I also knew that would disappoint friends who had invited us, and I was already disappointing my partner Fiona who could tell I was mid plunge. She thought maybe going out would help. I knew that it wouldn’t and the moment we left the house, I longed for the evening to be over. I am often asked by families of depressives if there is anything they should do to help. Be there for them when it starts, I say. Be there for them when it is over. Don’t make them do things they don’t want to in between. Don’t tell them to pull themselves together. Do suggest they get proper professional help. I ignored that one for many years.

Fiona and I have a rhythm with my depressions now. I tell her it has struck. It helps to tells someone. She asks what triggered it. I say I don’t know. She suggests I go and see the man I go to see when I get depressed. I go. Sometimes I take medication – which I hate taking, but it does help – sometimes I tough it out. Always, I know it won’t be the last time. It is part of who I am.

‘Real struggle to get out of bed,’ I recorded of the morning after the Clapton concert. As he, his wife and I sat watching the cricket, I thought about telling him about that awful night, but decided against. I find it hard to describe depression when, as now, I am not depressed. It is the mental health equivalent of childbirth. You have to forget, or else you wouldn’t be able to face it again. I have faced it many times, though for years I drowned it out in drink, and perhaps at other times crowded it out with work. You hope it helps that you can say to yourself ‘you have been through this before, you can do it again.’ But when the moment comes, when you know that depressive cloud is moving in, and you cannot stave it off, and it is going to enter your head, your chest, your guts, your legs, your toes, your bones, your teeth, and every fibre of mind and body, it is like the first time all over again. Dead and alive at the same time.

Stephen Fry said that perhaps if he had children it might make him less suicidal when in the depths of a depression. He is probably right. I can’t remember how much I thought of my children when Clapton was performing, but I know I will have done. They are adults now, and I know that when they were young it was an unfair burden to place on them, but they were the only ones whose company could sometimes lift me when I was down.

Yet of course some parents do kill themselves. I remember several years ago, a leading politician telling me a friend had taken his own life, and the politician had harsh words for this act of ‘cowardice and cruelty.’

We ended up having a row. ‘Who are you to say he was a coward?’ Back came the answer. ‘He had a good job, a nice house, great wife, two lovely sons – what the fuck did he have to be depressed about?’ We hear it less than we used to, but hear it we do. Stephen Fry is often called a national treasure. He is clever, witty, hugely successful, massively popular. So ‘what the fuck does he have to be depressed about?’ Nothing. It just fucking is. It is to change the attitudes of those who think ‘what does Stephen Fry have to be depressed about?’ that the Time to Change campaign exists. We are a long way from the goal of parity of understanding and treatment of physical and mental health. You would never say ‘what does he have to be cancerous about, diabetic about, asthmatic about?’ That bloody Stephen Fry, always going on about his rheumatoid arthritis, his club foot, his bronchitis, his Crohn’s disease. Nobody ever gets blamed for getting physical illness – even when those illnesses do result from lifestyle choices; so why on earth do we still talk about depression like it is the fault, and the lifestyle choice, of the depressive. Believe me, nobody who has had it would choose it for themselves, nor wish it on their worst enemy.

– Alastair Campbell is a Time to Change ambassador. He is the author of two books on mental health, The Happy Depressive, and All In The Mind

  • TSF

    Thanks for that, it is always a great reminder especially to the people who don’t experience it, or have recovered from something difficult to cope with in life. But although great they recovered – they perhaps needed the reminder about other people suffering, and how maybe they used to be themselves. Regards. Please email me?

  • Kat Brown

    Like a lot of people I really enjoyed your piece in the Indie, and your tweet was perfectly phrased. It can be incredibly difficult to get people to understand any form of “invisible” illness and you hit the nail on the head.

    Oh and FYI: 9,349 retweets and 3,206 favourites at time of comment.

  • JohntheLith

    Your tweet intrigued me when I heard about it – I don’t do twitter.

    I’m bi-polar, have prostate cancer, have cardio-vascular disease (two heart attacks), am asthmatic and have been told I am at great risk of diabetes (which isn’t a complete list). My question is always “what’s it all about?” but I like your approach to addressing prejudice. As with racism, etc people need to change the language they use in order to reduce prejudice against the mentally unwell.

    I never liked you when you worked for B-liar, but I greatly appreciate your work with “Time To Change”

  • Michele

    Isn’t it a bit of a lie to accept what others have said and use their lack of proof for their spouting as fuel for a swipe of your ‘own’?
    Isn’;t that the height (actually the depth) of dishonesty?

  • Michele

    I’m not sure why depression is classified discretely from what we regard as physical conditions.

    It surely has many physical causes, why else do chemicals help those they do (while making some feel even worse)?

    Why else do sunny skies, spicy foods, hydration or exercise give most of us energy and ‘cheer’ while people with less light and living on potatoes and other white food plod around?

    The classification of it as ‘mental illness’ has allowed a stigma that really doesn’t help, it allows teasing and much much worse (and even gives what he regards legitimate ‘ammo’ to Staines (sic) on the carpet the world could happily do without).

  • Nicola

    Alastair, I don’t know if you even read these, but I wanted to thank you for the comments you have made on the Stephen Fry debate.

    I have been a sufferer of depression for the majority of my life, and no one has been able to accurately describe the impact it has the way that you have – to the extent that I have been able to pass it around to people who I know just can’t understand it.

    I am glad to be living in a world that is finally beginning to accept that mental health issues are at least a real thing. Just a few months ago I went to the doctors after years of suffering because it had finally come to the point that it was impossible to deal with – a so-called medical professional actually told me that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was making it up, that I was trying to get attention, and that I was wasting the time of all the people who actually had real problems and couldn’t get an appointment. She even attempted to take my bag from me stating that I was clearly going to take all the pills inside my bag at once for more attention. I complained to the practice and received a letter that said they took it extremely seriously, and that the staff member involved would receive a talk on the correct way to handle such situations. Right, as if that is going to make any difference…

    This was just a few months ago in central London, where we’re supposed to be more accepting…

    This was longer than expected, but thank you for your work in trying to make this more of an understood issue, it is very helpful to people like me who feel they have to keep it a secret, because to an outsider there is nothing wrong with my life and I am selfish for feeling like there is anything wrong.

  • Claire Wallington

    I agree totally with your observations about depression, but couldn’t help noticing that you used “my depression” twice in the article. Acceptance is of course essential, but I have tried to avoid owning the depression. Words are powerfully suggestive to the subconscious.

  • Kelly

    Just a message of thanks. Having dealt with depression for the last 12 years (I am now 27) and bipolar disorder for the last two, it is empowering to feel that someone is on my side for once. As a woman and an actress, I have spent most of my life being described as ‘melodramatic’ or ‘sensitive’ and can only imagine how emasculating such descriptions can be for a man. One day, people will understand that our diseases of the mind are also physical, that our bodies also suffer. Recently a loved one told me to “shut up, it isn’t going to fucking kill you, like cancer”, and I swiftly directed him towards a list of suicide statistics. I have felt attacked for over a decade, and lost a job last year because my boss thought that “bipolar people need to get a real problem, like anorexia”, but with people finally on my side, I really believe that things will change. Thank you, once again.

  • lorna o’reilly

    I think you could usefully say how awful and difficult it is also for families living with a depressed person , there is no handbook and all ur natural instincts to get people out etc which you refer to in the article do not work but the family worry if they do nothing it will never change and the person just gets worse ..there is Al Anon for families living with alchoholics but nothing for us ..maybe Fiona could tell her story or offer some advice because for me it is a living hell trying to know what to do and an anger at losing the life I thought I had whilst also knowing you love the person who is suffering. There is not a lot of hope out there .

  • Michele

    Stephen Fry was one of the earliest signatories to IJV, an online statement that I looked on to years ago to see if several past-colleagues were included (yes, they too were early signatories so I danced around and ran up and down stairs a bit).

    I’m in awe of their bravery for doing something they know will bring them very public kickings in the head, from minority print organs as well as fellow-media types who run other blogs.

    I posted last year about Hardtalk interviewing Norman Finkelstein, someone so brilliant but publicly bullied by his own ‘community’ that regard him as a traitor to it.

    I’m sure that these quite recent events can’t be the root of a person’s depression but it’s possible that it’s only those who’ve withstood extreme downs in their pasts dare risk or endure them in their futures. They’re much more important to our futures than are the conformists …… oooh that reminds me of a brilliant film.

  • Anonymous

    tweet if you want to, but this tweeting is not to be turned.

    Sorry, had to be said, I thought, well within 124 characters.
    old lifetimed friend was found dead yesterday, natural causes it looks. 55 he was, heart attack maybe, lived on his own, been through hard times with dying family, but it does put my mind into context. Such stories can help, in bring mind clarity.

    Oh Dai Bowen, oh jezzus chroist, what happened to you? Coroner early reports/rumours he was dead on his sofa for two weeks, say indicated by our local cops. Big Man U supporter.

    YEP, spoke to my local undertaker that is handling his remains, and was natural “things”. 10am, next Wednesday morning, Llanelli crem, to be puffed into smoke. No suspicious circumstances, really thankfully. When you do look after try after the well being of someone, it does sort of take it out of you when they succumb.

  • Anonymous

    Song for Dai

    in his resting place soon in air.

  • Anonymous

    ACH, me and my mate Alun are feeling better now today, speaking to each other. Both of us knew him well, but Dai crept under the radar to both of us in recent months since Dai would not answer his phone, nor answer his door, but when Alun spoke to his neighbour about a month ago that cuts his grass for him, he said he is OK, But last Friday when he went to cut his grass again, he did not come out with the lawn mower noise, so he knocked on the door – no reply – so he looked through the lounge window, and….

    oh shit

    Never was into music, just football was Dai, unlike me. Captained his team for several seasons when his legs worked properly. As they say at every funeral, remember all, life is for the living, here we stand, remembering those gone.

  • Michele

    Commiserations Ehtch :((

  • Anonymous

    No probs, thanks. Funeral service tomorrow morning in Llanelli crem, and back to the Cross Hands Workingman’s club to lift a few for him. Heard loads will be there. Word surprisingly does get around. But not just for him, but for for his brother Nigel that went years ago, and for his mam and dad gone, much too soon. Life wears.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry to be boring, but this is the song that I want to be played, as I flow into the glowing oven, and disappearing into a puff of smoke,

  • Sera Tonin

    I completely agree. I think there are countless physical causes for depression, including the cities we have created to live in, the massive amounts of stress that we endure, the things we eat, the images per second that we expose ourselves to watching tv shows, advertising and using platforms like twitter! While I think this piece is a great description of what depression feels like, I think there are lots of ways to improve it (and this is from a long time sufferer- one who has gotten better at coping with it over time). I don’t think there is enough being done to look at these physical causes and more to the point, social causes- although a fantastic resource is a book called “in search of Happiness Understanding an endangered state of mind” by John F. Schumaker. This book helped me think about depression in a very different light. Mental illness suggests that one is sick in the mind- which I don’t think is helpful or true. I think it is much more likely that “we” collectively are sick in our ways of living as humans. To me my depression makes perfect sense- it is the hopelessness or powerlessness I feel living in a world created and controlled by others and if I let this powerlessness take hold then it crosses over into emptiness- not caring at all. I think that a lot of people confuse depression with being “sad” or having a hard time. And personally, as far as I’m concerned, the term, “mentally ill” does not help in the slightest.

  • Tory Gates

    Thank you very much for your column…I did see the link from Stephen’s page. I deal with depression, and have my whole life. I’ve been in those places. Your comment about be there at the start, and be there at the end, is very big. Also the part about don’t make people do stuff in the middle…so true. I hope the stigma finally goes away, and I’d like to see it in my lifetime. Peace.

  • Exo Human

    The plant medicines Ayahuasca and Iboga have an impressive reputation for curing depression.

    The pharmaceutical industry has NO interest in a cure for ANY of today’s immensely profitable diseases. That is why they are all on the rise.

    Depressives should seek out a reputable shaman or ayahuasca centre in South America and partake of the ‘spirit vine’.

    Research historian Graham Hancock, Jan Kounen, Daniel Pinchbeck, Russell Brand, Sting, Alex Grey, Dr Rick Strassman. Watch ‘DMT: Spirit Molecule’, Jan Kounen’s ‘Blueberry’ and ‘Other Worlds’.

    Big Pharma will kill you slowly, while it empties your bank account. Ayahuasca will cure your depression.

  • Francis P

    Yeah, its not like Stephen Fry was complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people or anything.

  • Madlock

    Mr. Campbell, although our political beliefs differ to an almost-primal degree, I couldn’t agree more with your insight, wisdom and the clarity with which you’ve presented them in this particular piece.

    Thank you for writing it. I’m sorry you or anybody has such a clear first-person understanding of depression and the impact it has and for the ignorance and arrogance of a thankfully-decreasing minority who insists upon to ignoring or stigmatizing depression’s already-devastating affects.

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  • Leona Devaz

    Thank you Alistair, for writing such a well-informed and earnest piece. I do agree with the sentiment of those with depression bipolar would not wish it on their worst enemy. It is an incredibly crippling state to be in, and until it is recognised in society as a blameless illness, as you mentioned – a lack of understanding will be all pervasive.

    I’m hopeful the more it can be openly discussed, which is challenging when you are the person debilitated with the illness, the more we can accept the nuances this disease has, and how it affects people.

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