The anguish of depression and why I believe it is wrong to call it a cop-out
At its core, public debate in light of the revelations about the Germanwings pilot's mental health, must have compassion, says the BBC's Special Correspondent
Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30
All week I have thought about depression. As soon as it became known that the pilot of Germanwings 9525 had committed suicide and carried 150 people to their deaths with him, the printed pages and airwaves erupted. There was some intelligent writing but much ignorance and stupidity too. The Sun columnist Katie Hopkins declared: "There is no stigma around depression. There are only realists and people pissed off because their train is delayed." There was much more in this vein on her twitter feed. Calculating, hugely popular - she has 500,000 twitter followers - but her comments on depression are devoid of understanding. I draw a strong distinction between Hopkins and somebody like my fellow columnist John Waters, who was once quoted as saying he did not believe in depression, that he regarded it as a cop-out. I disagreed with him profoundly but I never see in his writings the mind of a calculating contrarian. As a writer he is the real deal, a man of integrity with whom I can often disagree but whose voice provides a necessary corrective to the intellectually huddled community of the perennially right thinking. I suspect too that there was more to his views on depression than the printed words could convey.
I do believe in depression. I believe that to call it a cop-out is wrong. I have experienced intermittent episodes of depression for many years. Some have been of the 'battle through with help' variety. Others defied the best attempts at battling. There is a beautiful poem by Robert Lowell that captures more vividly than any other I know the anguish of depression.
My mind's not right.
A car radio bleats,
"Love, careless Love. . . ." I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
(Skunk Hour, Robert Lowell, 1959)
'My mind's not right.' Those four words tell it all. What I go through occasionally is both similar and utterly different to what is experienced by many millions of people. Similar in that the sense of isolation, anxiety and hopelessness are so common. Different because the melancholy and the terrors which occasionally visit are specific, they are the unbidden ghosts of very personal experiences.
I speak only for myself, with the knowledge that experiences and responses are individual. Depression does not make me special. It does not confer on me any deep wisdom, artistic greatness or martyr's grace. It is something I face and learn from if I can. It has taught me much about myself, sometimes things that would be easier in the short term to avoid. I have a long way to go on that learning road. Avoidance is a dedicated travelling companion. The American psychiatrist Sheldon B Kopp, writes of a man who opts for "the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity". Step forwards yours truly. Self-acceptance is the hardest part of the journey. Why is it that compassion for the self is often the hardest quest of all?
I have learned about the kindness of family, friends and employers. I am lucky. I live in an age of much greater understanding where help is available. Having grown up in a time where people were regularly shunted off to be forgotten in psychiatric hospitals with the whispered diagnoses of 'bad nerves' I will never be ashamed to speak of depression. I argue only that public debate must have compassion at its core and have one word for those like Katie Hopkins who erupt on Twitter: think.
To Ireland, where the rain and wind greet us at Shannon. I am here to attend a family wedding and to lecture to students at the University of Limerick. I always flinch when I see myself described as 'lecturing'. A part of me has always felt academically insecure. I didn't go to college. I wanted more than anything in life to be a newspaper reporter and so eagerly took the job that was offered me on the Limerick Leader back in 1979. The fact that I failed French and Maths in the Leaving Cert made the decision er… easier. I am self-educated in the meaningful things in life: literature, history, music, travel, love. Over the years I have been garlanded with various honorary degrees but I always look slightly sheepishly at my close family and friends who came by theirs the hard way. I did my best with the packed house at the university. As ever, it was the quality of the questions that simultaneously challenged and inspired me. I spent most of my hour urging the students, and a fair few adults too, to adopt reason as their guiding principle. "Your most passionately held opinions are only worth a damn when you have taken them apart, studied the evidence and tried to see things from the viewpoint of your adversary." I always feel at moments like this, when I am in full rhetorical flight, that I resemble Joyce's unkind portrait of Oliver St John Gogarty: "Stately plump Buck Mulligan." The students nodded and then proceeded to challenge my opinions. A young man at the back said he had a difficult question. "Did any part of you regret taking the OBE (Order of the British Empire)?"
"NO," I replied. "Not at all." For a moment I thought that I was about to be harangued as a lickspittle of British imperialism. But quite the contrary. My interlocutor was thoughtful and reasoned; he was genuinely questioning the historical significance of somebody from a nationalist background accepting a British honour. For the record, I was given the award for my television work on South Africa and the Rwandan genocide back in 1994. I realise there will be some nationalists who believe I should have rejected the award. I was honoured to accept. To finish I asked the young man what he would have done. "Eh, well…I'd face a lot of family pressure…I'd like to think I'd refuse but I'm not sure." And he laughed and we all laughed. He will make a great journalist.