While people from the world of comedy are 'outing' themselves as depressives, I'm left wondering if this is doing the image of mental illness any good. Television programmes encouraging people to tell their work colleagues about their struggle with mental health are good in terms of raising awareness but aren't they potentially exploitative as well?
The tears of a clown image if the depressed comedian imprisoned in his or her own angst is nothing new. Like Woody Allen and the late great Tony Hancock, who made a living out of parading their anxieties in public, Ruby Wax has the most to lose and gain out of being the 'poster girl' of mental health and documents this wisely in her current television series, 'Mad Confessions'.
But are we now in danger of popularising mental illness to the point where anybody can feign a breakdown to get a few weeks off work? Plus, knowledge can also be powerful in the wrong hands.
I have battled minor depression for most of my life. Put down as an 'over anxious' child, prone to bouts of uncontrollable crying, and described as a moody teenager with dreadful PMT I, like most of my generation, was told to 'get on with it'.
Yet my worst experiences came much later and it was in the work place that I suffered most. As Ruby is currently subscribing, I felt it best to 'come clean' about my illness at work, agreeing with my GP that I should inform my (female) boss. I had suffered a minor breakdown just three months after giving birth to my second child and returning to work when she was only eight weeks old.
I had been told that my colleagues would be 'relaxed' about my return to the office and that as long as I showed up every day and took over my duties, all would be fine. Six weeks back and I was struggling against clock watching and being made to compete with the person hired to cover my maternity leave (who was, strangely, still there and better at my job than me - or so I thought). I was on a collision course and, finally 'broke down' at the office Christmas party.
Fortunately I had two weeks leave booked over the festive season so I hid in my darkened bedroom leaving my poor husband to cope with a new baby and a four year old. I was inconsolable until the drugs kicked in and then, I went straight back to work as if nothing had ever happened!
But it had - I told my boss, with the written support of my doctor, that I had been suffering from post natal depression and she agreed not to put this on record. A year later when the need to cull staff arose, she attempted to dismiss me on the basis that my performance had been impeded by mental illness. I appealed and won, leaving with a good severance deal and my integrity intact.
Since then I have rearranged my life to accommodate the ups and downs of my condition. It's no joke to suffer from any kind of mental illness - it's a dark difficult place to live in. Comedy is a way out for some people and I do hugely respect what Ruby is doing, just as long as she understands what she is unleashing.
I was asked by a psychotherapist friend if I would take on one of her patients as an intern last summer. Claire* had studied comedy and my friend thought Funny Women would be a supportive and nurturing workplace environment. Claire's illness had manifested itself in self-harm, eating disorders and drug addiction so it was a tall order!
Claire made fantastic progress and accompanied us to the Edinburgh Fringe last year. As an 'end of term' treat I bought tickets for us to see Ruby's Wax's show, 'Losing It'. Claire hung on her every word and took an active part in the discussion at the end of the show. Ruby then stated that she would be available 'back stage' if anybody wanted any extra advice. Predictably a long queue accumulated in the interminable Edinburgh rain and an hour's wait did nothing to dampen Claire's enthusiasm. A lucky few were admitted into Ruby's dressing room but eventually a burly security guard appeared to say that she couldn't see any more people and, if we came to see the show again another day, we could try again.
I am a poor substitute for Ruby Wax but we had a laugh about it and all was fine - except to say that you can't mess with the minds of these people! When you promise, particularly in front of a packed auditorium at the Edinburgh Fringe, you have to deliver! Or don't promise at all.
Maybe television is the safer medium for the message but from my experience beware the workplace wolf in sheep's clothing, as they could use the knowledge of your condition for their own gain. And if you are fortunate enough to manage your mental illness so that you can function normally and work effectively, please use your power and knowledge wisely.
With depression you never know when the demons will strike again or, indeed, in what form they may manifest - I'm fortunate to be in a position where I can talk and write about my experiences and, like Ruby, maybe help a few other people along the way.
*name changed to protect identity
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