I am entirely fascinated with the issue of depression, particularly in celebrities that I admire and look up to, both as a kid and now. There can be many reasons for this, whether it’s a feeling of not being alone with my own experience or whether I can see some of my own issues in the experiences of others.
One of the factors is the reaction that people have to the issue, which is more pronounced in the lives of ‘celebrity’. I remember, for example, when I was a kid, perhaps 7 or 8 and I was reading a football magazine, in it they had run a cartoon about Stan Collymore, a player for Liverpool at the time, who had recently been in the news as he had admitted suffering from depression. The cartoon, which I still remember, involved him complaining about his depression and then being taken to a dimly lit American blues club by someone who then tried to point out that these were people with real problems. This sticks in my mind because it completely misrepresents the experience of depression, something that I have written about before (it’s not just being sad) but also because it poses the societally held opinion that if you have money then everything in your life must be great, you have no reason to feel depressed.
Luckily this idea may be changing now, but the fact that this can be a thought is very troubling, and is part of the reason why people struggle to discuss their problems with friends and family, work colleagues and doctors. People (mostly men) will put off seeing a medical professional about their issues until they are very serious, and given the incredibly high suicide rate in this country, often too late. This happens because of the threat of being seen as ‘weak’ by society, an abstract experience that happens in your own mind rather than in any real way. (There are exceptions to this of course, me included who were told that depression was just a sign of weakness, so the fear is not just a symptom but could also be a very real fear of judgement.)
The deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington shocked the music world and brought into public view the dangerousness of depression and the fact that it could hit anyone. These were two musicians that I looked up to greatly and their deaths were a shock, but also in an odd way completely understandable. I have always thought of musicians, as well as comedians, as deeply troubled characters, it’s where the best and most honest entertainment comes from, it is why I have dabbled in both myself.
The aspect that always intrigued me and allowed me to recognise what I was going through in others, even when I was much younger, was the openness of Jim Carrey about his issues with depression, and later the suicide of Robin Williams. These were two men who I laughed along with, just like everyone else, and who filled my childhood with enjoyment that I don’t believe could be matched as an adult by anyone else today. What I also found was something I saw in myself, the ability to distance people from you as a result of humour. The way in which you can push people gently away from talking about anything that is a little bit too raw by making a joke, by making light of a situation you can hide how devastating it is to you. I did that for years, and it takes a great deal of energy to not do that now.
Robin Williams suicide was heart-breaking for so many people for the reasons that I mentioned above. He brought joy to millions and was beloved as a result, and yet even that was not enough to fight off the depression, as many people fail to realise, there is nothing people can say to make you feel better, it does not matter how many people love you or how much, it is about loving yourself and dealing with inner demons that threaten you at every turn. My initial thoughts on hearing of his death were like many others “If Robin can’t handle life, what hope is there for the rest of us?”
If there is a good thing that can be taken from the deaths of these men, and it is disproportionately men that are committing suicide, though it is disproportionately women who are diagnosed with depression, it is that the subject of depression is being talked about more openly with people sharing their experiences. Hopefully this will lead to a greater understanding of the illness and what it entails. It is not your surroundings, or your living situation that causes depression but an internal struggle. There is a reason that after a disaster or war the rates of suicide and depression drop drastically. In a crisis every person is precious and everyone is of use. After 9/11 in New York, for example, PTSD sufferers reported a huge reduction in their symptoms, again the dynamic of people’s experiences changed to a more cohesive and inclusive society, “we are all in it together” as it were. A sense of self, of meaning and of purpose in life is something that is often missing in the times we currently find ourselves in and is something that needs to be addressed.
In the words of Jim Carrey “I was depressed when I was trying to be the wizard of Oz, instead of the sweaty guy behind the curtain. But now I know that Oz is a character, and I think everybody deals with that”.