Saturday, 8 June 2013

It's enough to drive you nuts

My irritation with the media's treatment of mental health issues continues.  This morning, BBC News did a feature which benefitted from the insightful input of Scottish racing cyclist Graeme Obree, who likened depression to a fire in a hotel: the fire may be in one room, but the system built to deal with it requires sprinklers to go off in every room.  An excellent analogy.  Less helpful is the on-going saga of Stephen Fry, who admitted this week that he attempted - not for the first time - to take his own life last year. 

While I have a great deal of sympathy for - dare I say empathy with - Fry, who has clearly suffered a great deal in his time, and who has no doubt used his fame to aid mental health services (at least, I assume he has), I have always been sceptical of his contributions so far as the media is concerned.  A few years ago, he made a programme in which he talked to other famous people about their own depression.  So, ultimately, this was yet another programme with famous people talking to each other.  His depression aside, Stephen Fry is adored by millions of followers, he is rich and influential, he has many friends, and he knows many others who share his very difficult issues.  How can his life be representative in any way of the 'average' person who suffers from depression?  How on Earth was his programme supposed to help, say, an unemployed man in his early twenties, who lives alone and has no friends, who cannot afford the kind of intensive therapy required to treat depression, and whose family members have no time for, or understanding of, his illness? 

Some studies have discussed the way in which depression may in fact have aided the creative output of a number of talented famous people: Spike Milligan, for instance, talked about his own depression at length in his book with Anthony Clare, which featured a whole chapter on how Milligan's illness related to his incredible creative output.  But this is not the story with everyone.  Many creative people are completely dried up by their depression, and many others have no-one to share their creativity with.

The fact that today's BBC discussion of depression was carried out with a picture of Fry's round, sagging face smiling his approval behind the participants is very significant.  The reality of all this 'awareness-raising' is that - like everything else - it is led by celebrities.  Because they determine the agenda - as it relates to health, money, fashion or anything else - it will always be the case that difficult issues such as depression demand a famous personality to be the 'face' of the issue.  The reality is that intelligent statements such as the one made this morning by Graeme Obree are more useful to this discussion than anything Fry has ever contributed.  Whether intentionally or not, his statements on this issue serve only to raise his public profile and alienate others who share some aspect of his illness.

Of course, I agree that awareness must be raised, dialogue must be encouraged and understanding must be achieved, but none of these things are possible so long as we need Stephen Fry's face in the backdrop.

On a happier note: well done to all of my Politics of Protest students for getting through that exam.

Bestest
James O.

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