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 http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/i-feel-for-stephen-fry-nobody-who-has-known-depression-would-wish-it-on-their-worst-enemy-8649425.html … 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