Marian shines a light on the dark side

Vicki Notaro

BELOVED Irish novelist Marian Keyes returns this week with her first novel in three years, The Mystery of Mercy Close. I've waited for this new book with bated breath, having missed Marian's work and worried about her often in the past few years.

Her absence from the public eye was due to illness, but not one that was visible or had a steady progress report. It's an illness that up until recently inspired whispers, confusion and fear instead of sympathy, understanding and respect -- depression, in its most severe form.

For some reason, a lot of people find mental health issues a difficult topic to discuss, but the author has been honest and straightforward about her battle with depression since she first took ill in early 2010 -- in fact, her assertion then that she had an "almost irresistible urge to be dead" shook me to my very core with its powerful honesty.

However, at the beginning of this year Marian revealed that while she didn't think she'd ever be "better" again, she was in a place where she wanted to live, and more, she was able to write again, something she hadn't done for a couple of years.

The timing of the release of Marian's first novel in the aftermath of her illness is interesting, coming just days after World Suicide Prevention day. I finally got my paws on The Mystery of Mercy Close a couple of weeks ago, and read it in a few days.

I was thrilled to have Marian back, but as well as her trademark wit, warmth and the Irishness she's famous for, which will delight Keyes' fans the world over, there is a deeper evidence of the change in my favourite author so evident in its pages.

I came out of the book with a deep and profound understanding of what had happened to her over the past few years, and such admiration for the woman herself for not only loosening the hold her depression had on her, but for her ability to reach people and make them understand something as complicated as mental illness.


Her books may be snidely disregarded as "chick-lit" by some, but Marian's writing has never been shallow -- she has written about domestic violence, alcoholism and grief as well as love and relationships.

This novel is no different, dealing with the topics of suicide and mental health as well as romance.

The Mystery of Mercy Close is fiction; it's hilariously funny and suspenseful, and will keep you guessing until the very end. However the overriding theme (and what will stay with you after the mystery is solved) is one woman's struggle with depression.

The experience of the main character , Helen Walsh, is so akin to what Marian wrote on her blog about her own illness, in some places word for word, that it's like a glimpse inside the author's mind at its most troubled.

I'm not sure where Marian's own personal experience stops blending with her heroine's, what is pure storytelling and what is closer to true events, but either way the tale tells of the illness in such a way that it made me understand the difference between those blues we all suffer from time to time, and clinical depression.

The word "depressed" is bandied about so often that we are curiously immune to it; its overuse takes away from its potential severity.

At 21 in university, I was prone to low periods, and have feared ever since that they'll return. Looking back now, I see how these miserable moments were purely the result of situations I'd put myself in, and once I made the necessary changes and talked about how I was feeling, the sense of doom left me.

I felt similarly last year -- panicked and anxious more than sad and miserable, but this time discounted my feelings as symptoms of stress due to my all-encompassing job and busy lifestyle.

However after a while, I realised my moods were spiralling downwards and made the decision to change my life before I got any lower. This is the type of situational depression, or the blues, that can strike us all at one point whether we are grieving a loss, going through a bad time at work or wondering what it's all about.

"Depression is a very common issue," explains Sandra Hogan, from mental health charity Aware (

"About one in 10 people experience it at any one time. For some, lifestyle changes can help, like exercise and finding way to relieve stress, and the person may be able to carry on with their usual routine.

"More moderate to severe cases might mean the person withdraws from loved ones, and is unable to work. This can exacerbate any symptoms and make the person feel even worse. More severe cases might also require treatment over a longer period of time."

So why do some people experience the kind of all-consuming, hideously severe depressive episodes like Marian, and not others? "It really depends on the person and the type of depression," offers Sandra.

Brian Howard, CEO of Mental Health Ireland, agrees. "There is no general rule when it comes to depression, and it affects people differently. It's difficult to define, but depression occurs when an individual is unable to cope. Sometimes it's more severe than others."


Marian was not numb or catatonic like many describe their experience; she was in fact feeling too much, and she revealed that her "inner abyss" was responsible -- the same abyss which had led to her alcoholism 18 years ago.

She isn't the only celebrity speaking out about her problems with mental illness. Frankie Sandford, from girl group The Saturdays, is another person who is successful and well loved, and the last person you'd expect to suffer from depression. But suffer she does, as she revealed in the May 2012 issue of Glamour magazine.

Frankie sought treatment for depression in a clinic earlier this year. Many speculated that she was in rehab for an eating disorder or addiction, but it was the precarious state of her mental health that prompted the time out.

She had been having panic attacks since the age of 15, but it all came to a head for the 23-year-old earlier this year, with "a spiral of negative thinking," as she told Glamour magazine.

Thankfully, both Marian and Frankie have come out the other side of their depressive episodes thanks to seeking help, but not everyone is so lucky, with 600 people taking their lives in Ireland every year, according to Mental Health Ireland. So what should somebody suffering do when they've sought help and it hasn't worked?

"If a treatment doesn't seem to be working it is vital to discuss this with a doctor," says Sandra. "Some treatments take longer than others, and it may take a while before the person themselves notices any improvement.

The Mystery of Mercy Close is on sale now. For more on mental health issues and to seek help, visit or call 1890 303 302.