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On Stephen Fry: nobody chooses depression, so let’s not blame for it

Posted on 6 June 2013 | 7:06pm

ITV News asked me to write a blog on depression following Stephen Fry’s latest admission of his latest suicide attempt. Here it is…

Stephen Fry hit the nail on the head when he said that people are liable to think ‘why would someone like him be so depressed that he would want to kill himself?’

He’s so popular and famous and wealthy and he has such a fabulously interesting life making TV programmes and writing books. That should be enough shouldn’t it?

But you wouldn’t ask why someone got cancer or diabetes or asthma like it was their fault. You wouldn’t say: ‘What have you got to get cancerous about?’

Those ‘nothing to get depressed about’ people don’t undertand that it’s an illness. Some people get mentally ill and some don’t – just as with a physical illness.

If you’re coughing up blood, break your leg or have a raging temperature, it is obvious what you have to do. But if you suddenly have these overwhelming feelings of nothingness, deadness and sadness, who do you speak to?

Stephen Fry spoke about presenting QI and thinking ‘I wish I was f*****g dead’. Sometimes it does get that bad, but most people continue to function. Sometimes the pressure to keep functioning is too much.

Watch: Stephen Fry admits suicide attempt was ‘a close run thing’

Stephen Fry, who has bipolar disorder, recently revealed he had attempted suicide in an interviewStephen Fry, who has bipolar disorder, recently revealed he had attempted suicide in an interviewCredit: ITAR-TASS/Photas/Tass/Press Association Images

The funny thing about depression is that when I’m not depressed I find it really hard to describe what it’s like. Some say it’s like a fog, others like their body is full of lead. For me, it feels like being dead: You’re conscious of breathing, smelling and you see people walking about, but to all intents and purposes you’re completely dead inside.

You wouldn’t ask why someone got cancer or diabetes or asthma like it was their fault. You wouldn’t say: ‘What have you got to get cancerous about?’

I have never regretted being open about my mental health problems. In a way, I’ve had no choice: I was a high-flying journalist in Fleet Street and I had a very public breakdown. People thought I had crashed and burned. I thought I’d never work again.

Luckily, I was given my old job back at the Mirror. A lot of people who have similar experiences work their way back into the world over time, but I definitely benefitted by being completely open with people.

When I returned to work, there was a lot of humour about it but I’ve never felt anything but absolute support from the public. They are much more understanding than the media can be.

I have not been depressed for a while but when I start to feel bad I talk to my partner Fiona. I have good friends I speak to and I’ve got a guy I see who I trust. I resisted taking medication for a long time – I always hated it and still do – but if he recommends something for a while then I will take it.

I also find that exercise is really important, as well as trying to keep looking outwards: Learn new things, read.

Things are improving and one day we’ll look back and wonder: Did we really have people who thought that depression was a lifestyle choice. That if you have schizophrenia you were likely to be violent. And that if you had a bout of mental illness in your past, you must under no circumstances put it down on your CV.

Alastair Campbell is is an ambassador for Time To Change. His views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.

  • ZintinW4

    Well said Al. People want to over simplify the world and put things into little containers. Mental Health doesn’t fit such neat compartmentalisation. A broader understanding needs to start from the perspective that a general diagnosis is different to a specific diagnosis. Saying depression is the same for everyone is like saying all cancers are the same, they!’re not.

  • MJF

    I read this through tears. I was diagnosed with severe depression earlier this year, although the symptoms had been prevalent for many months and I had tried to ignore them. I am still coming to terms with not being able to “just cheer up”. Like many others I have a good life and felt that I should have no reason to be miserable. This guilt has been compounded by observing the way friends currently fighting cancer or other conditions with more physical symptoms seem to be handling life better. I have yet to tell my family about my diagnosis and have only felt able to confide in a small number of close friends, some of whom, I subsequently discovered, had personal experience. Thank you for the work you and other high profile and successful people are doing to explain mental illness and highlight its prevalence. I hope that I too can be open about it one day.

  • Carmel

    Well done Alastair. For me when depressed it’s also like being dead though I describe it as being completely disconnected. Nothing makes sense and everything is pointless. At this point the thoughts of death or killing myself comes, it’s low and infrequent at first then it’s gets louder and louder until it’s all I think about. I know I must see the GP then. The thoughts try to trick me into inaction but so far it hasn’t won.

  • TSF

    Great of you to remind people of mental health issues, including mental health you have to contend with, and Stephen Fry. And of the help that there is.

  • Laura Preble

    I’ve had depression all my life, but didn’t know it until I was an adult at about 28. What you said about blaming people who have other illnesses is so true…yet here in the U.S. there is a huge stigma about having a mental illness of any kind. In fact, whenever someone does something violent, the media almost always comments on whether or not the person was depressed or taking medication. I never see them comment on whether or not the person had cancer or diabetes. You really get a black mark here if you take time off to deal with mental illness, your own or your family’s. And in terms of health care, psychiatric care in the HMO system is a joke. There are exactly TWO doctors in our HMO who deal with kids with mental illness. Appointments are six weeks apart. It’s enough to make you depressed. (See what I did there?)

  • Anonymous

    In a strange land, with strange surroundings, If ever it is going to capture you Stephen, it is then. All the best Fry me lad. Thinking of you.

  • Colin Cumming

    I am not convinced. I think it is possible that some people might suspect you of hiding under the banner of depression to avoid taking responsibility for the major part you played in an aberration of British democracy that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and ended up making this country even more in danger of extreme terrorist attacks than ever before.
    When I’m depressed my mind shuts down. I find no pleasure whatsoever in anything, it is a struggle to even eat and drink. Yet here you are on this site that seems to attest to a driven, dynamic, psyche in full control of it’s future.
    Sorry, and honestly I mean no harm or criticism but all of this- depression?

  • Daniel P

    as someone who is perhaps as politically opposite to yourself as it is possible to get, Mr. Campbell, I would like to say thank you for raising awareness of this issue in the media and elsewhere.

    I’m a university student (just got a very good degree from St. Andrews), and lived with undiagnosed depression for years. I can completely understand the feelings/emotions that compels one to hide depression, and put on a facade for everyone else’s benefit.

    I’ve sought help, and though nothing has worked for me yet, I suppose it is something. It is incredibly important to highlight that depression and success are not mutually-exclusive (far from it – it would seem). I’m regarded as intelligent, bright, successful (etc) by family and friends…

    and yet so few of them know the demons of depression that I’ve struggled with – drinking, inertia, nightmares, side effects from medication, etc – whilst attempting to achieve anything.

    Thank you, Mr. Campbell, for raising awareness on this issue. I hope you continue to do it.

  • Miles Protter

    Thank you for explaining a lot of previously unexplainable behaviour by successful people who ‘should’ be happy because they ‘have it all’. When you re-frame depression as an illness, then you can understand the actions of Stephen Fry (who is thankfully still here!), Heath Ledger, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and the rest. You can have compassion for the drinking, drug taking and other ways people try to escape the awful experience.

  • Michele

    In your determination to bring up Iraq are you ignorant of AC’s long history of depression?
    Did you skip over the OP and its mention of a serious breakdown long long before he worked within Labour?

    – – – – – –

    I must admit I have a problem accepting anyone’s right to commit suicide.
    I know it’s heartless and a person’s only alternative might be to disappear, which would be no easier for those left / rejected.

    I’m sure that case histories from people about why they’ve even contemplated suicide would be very interesting but could also be dangerous.

  • Michele

    Amy W didn’t actually commit suicide, JFI.

    • Nancy Rapley

      I think he was referencing her drug and alcohol abuse which people often use to self medicate.

  • Barry French

    Thank you for a well-written blog. As someone currently in
    what a call ‘a depressed state’, about 4 out of 10 on my personal happiness scale, this made interesting reading. There is a lot of talk about ‘people helping themselves’. I know this phase will pass. I know I should eat. I know I should exercise. I do all of these things even though I really don’t want to. People confuse it with laziness. It is nothing of the sort. They say it is all in the mind, which doesn’t help when you are vomiting, have chest pains or are shaking. It is with great reluctance I have started taking anti-depressants again.

    I am not happy others are suffering, but it helps knowing
    that I am not going mad. Sharing experiences helps me draw comfort. I have resigned myself I am stuck with the condition for life and it just a question of how I manage it.

    I have had it all my life and didn’t realise until I was in
    my early 30s. I was watching a game of football on the telly, looked up and suddenly realised two goals had been scored. Goodness knows where my brain was off to, but I knew then that I had a problem and sought help.

    I hope one day that a there is a greater understanding of
    this condition and thank you to everybody on here for sharing your experiences.

  • Yes i agree!!!

  • brooke shores

    haa his description is good