It’s a grim time to have a mental health condition. Not that it was ever easy but this week there’s been the tragedy of a lost airliner with 150 people on board, its horrific end being attributed to the wilful act of the co-pilot. He’s said to have been treated for depression, to have been signed off sick for the day in question (illness unknown), but to have torn up the note and gone to work anyway. The headlines are screaming about the killer pilot, madmen, and murderers (see Rosie Mullender’s roundup) and any chance people with depression might have had of talking openly about their situation has suddenly been drowned by a ton of ill-informed hysterical bilge.
Talking about depression is not easy because it’s misunderstood. We’ve all been a bit down at some point, a bit fed up, and we’ve bought a new dress or had a couple of pints with our mates and got over it. But that’s not the depression that sucks you dry, spins you around until you don’t know – or care – which direction you came from or where you’re going, that bleaches the colour out of everything you enjoyed, that screams inside but leaves you silent with no words to describe what it’s doing, that turns your logic and rationality in on itself so that the desperate need to end the pain becomes a desperate need to do whatever might end the pain. For some that’s suicide, for others it’s crawling into a nihilistic hole to live in a grey world of constant white noise and lead weights for guts. Depression is tricksy, wearing different faces and slithering around definitions just out of sight, tailoring itself specially to each person it tries to suffocate. A bespoke closet of worthlessness.
Another trick depression plays is that it often makes you smile, makes you play a game alongside all the people who aren’t depressed (or that you just don’t know are depressed because, well – One in Four?), turns you into a piece of foil or tissue that looks like normal but is too thin to bear the strain of anything more substantial than a fixed, glassy-eyed grin.
So nobody knows and nobody dare tell, so nobody knows and the stereotypes persist.
The bottom line with depression is that one in four of us will experience it and here’s the trick of that – it’s interchangeable, so spotting the one in your group that you think it is, doesn’t mean you can heave a sigh of relief that it isn’t you because it could be, in time, given the right set of circumstances.
Suicides among men are rising while those among women are falling and it’s the leading cause of death among young men aged 20-34. If we scratch the surface of that, perhaps we can see that women tend to talk and to identify feelings in a way men often don’t; women are permitted to be ‘weak’ (although that has its limits where mental health is concerned) where men are supposed to be strong, and women seek help for all sorts of things more readily than men. Maybe here lies the bedrock of the isolation, confusion, fear, and despair that drives so many young men to take their own lives.
We can’t know what was going through the mind of this particular young man – whether he had planned to do what he did and engineered the situation that left him alone in the cockpit, or whether that was entirely opportunistic – but we can guess at the depth of despair that so cut him off from everything that normally matters to people; despair that drives out empathy, connection, feelings for others and that left the gap that allowed him to take so many with him.
We absolutely must make it possible to talk about mental illness the way we talk about physical illness and it’s maybe no accident that, along with not talking, mental health has, in the UK, been disadvantaged in terms of health funding in recent years. Mental health fluctuates, it’s on a spectrum, it isn’t all or nothing, it affects every aspect of our lives and it must have parity with physical illness in order to be openly addressed. In the UK, all manner of people and agencies are working on that. Time to Change, Grassroots Suicide Prevention are leaders in this and Matt Haig’s superb book, Reasons To Stay Alive is worth a few quid of anyone’s money. They all say the same thing – you wouldn’t blame someone with a broken leg for not walking on it, or say that a man jumping from a burning building was being selfish, or describe someone with leukaemia as lazy. When something breaks it needs fixing and it can’t be fixed unless it’s recognised and talked about without fear of a prejudicial hoohah breaking out. If suicide was the intent for this young pilot who, like many, appeared to have everything going for him and to be doing his dream job, we have to ask ourselves as a society what we could have done to help him. We can’t undo this appalling tragedy but we might just prevent another.
You’ve seen Grassroots and Time to Change above. Also Matt Haig’s book but I’ll shamelessly plug it again and also recommend you go to hear him as well, if you can. Meanwhile, here’s 40 mins-worth on Soundcloud.
There’s also this letter from Lisa Rodrigues, ex CEO of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. It’s to anyone experiencing depression and recounts some of her own experience. That was a courageous coming-out for sure.
Then there’s the Men’s Mental health Forum.
And quite obviously, The Samaritans.
Rethink (mental illness)