October 8, 2012

Alastair Campbell, Time to Change supporterIndia Knight can be a good and interesting columnist so it was a real shame to read her ill-informed, irresponsible and plain wrong views on depression in The Sunday Times yesterday. I know columnists have to scrabble for attention in a crowded, over competitive market at a time the reputation and sales of newspapers are falling. But her dive for the lowest common denominator was sad to see.

Once you get through the sense that she views depression as a lifestyle choice of the rich and famous, who want a medal for having the 'bravery' to speak out about it, you are left with two main points of view in her piece: there is no stigma around depression; and 'everybody gets depressed.'

The second statement reveals her ignorance of the fact that depression is an illness,

The second statement reveals her ignorance of the fact that depression is an illness, not a passing mood. Would she ever think to say 'everyone gets malaria ... everyone gets cancer ... everyone gets AIDS'? I doubt it, because she knows these are illnesses that strike some but not all of us. To say that 'Everybody gets depressed' suggests that though she says she knows depression is an illness, in truth she does not really accept that.

'Everybody gets fed up' would be accurate. I am fed up today because of the weather. I am fed up because George Osborne is Chancellor and cannot see the irony of the huge wealth he inherited on 'coming of age', and his attack on the something for nothing culture he claims to be dismantling by making the poor a lot poorer. I am fed up that Burnley keep taking the lead in matches only to throw it away. I am fed up that a builder in the street is currently making too much noise. I am fed up that in part because of the stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness, reinforced by columns like India Knight's, mental health services are being cut piecemeal around the country, with barely a flicker of protest of the anger that there should be as the most vulnerable get hit by the cuts. All of this makes me fed up, angry, not depressed.

I do not always know what makes me depressed

I do not always know what makes me depressed. What I do know is that I am currently on medication for a particularly bad bout which struck a few months ago, without warning and with real venom, which plunged me into an emptiness and mental pain I have known before, and which my psychiatrist felt required a sustained period on a new drug that I had not tried before. I get fed up taking it, because I hate drugs, but the depression has definitely eased, all but those closest to me have probably not noticed anything, and I reckon within a few weeks I will be off it, until the next time.

As for India Knight's claim that stigma does not exist, what I would say to that is this: I have no qualms whatever about being open about my mental health problems, not least because Time to Change is campaigning for genuine parity of understanding and services in physical and mental health. Added to which I am not short of opportunities, not worrying about losing a job or looking for a new one.

can take you to meet people who say the stigma and taboo leading to discrimination in the workplace can sometimes be worse than the symptoms

But many who suffer from depression are not so lucky. So when they are ill with depression, they are more likely to call in and say they have the flu, because people understand that; or say they have to take their Mum to hospital; or their child is off sick. All because they are not always sure how their employer or colleague will react. And that, dear India, is stigma, and I can take you to meet people who say the stigma and taboo leading to discrimination in the workplace can sometimes be worse than the symptoms.

Or perhaps in addition to a response from me, you will get one from the nurse I met recently who felt compelled to 'hide' six months of her life from her CV, six months almost a decade ago when she was off with chronic post natal depression, because she was not sure how her NHS employer would react to it as she went for promotion. The NHS no less, reinforcing stigma and taboo.

we are thankfully starting to see changes emerge

Time to Change has been campaigning for years to challenge negative attitudes and behaviours towards people with mental health problems and we are thankfully starting to see changes emerge. But for every step forward, there can be a step back, and that is what her article showed. It was unhelpful, potentially damaging and certainly showed we still have quite a way to go.

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This article was first published on alastaircampbell.org

Related page: Alastair Campbell talks about mental health

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