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Why Stephen Fry's Suicide Attempt Is a Lesson for Us All

Posted: 19/06/2013 00:00

By Jess Reid

If there's one thing that historically us Brits don't like to talk about, it's 'feelings'. Contrary to our therapy-loving American brethren and our passionate European neighbours, we are a stereotypically stoic nation. The mind-numbingly overused and hideously omnipresent "keep calm and carry on" lark, before it became a byline for quasi-quaint idiots who like baking too much, perfectly encapsulated our collective mentality of "just get on with it".

Some of us, however, cannot just get on with it. This month Stephen Fry, possibly one of the most universally adored and revered men on British television, admitted that in 2012 he made an attempt on his own life with a near-fatal cocktail of pills and vodka.

It's been widely known for a while now that Fry is bipolar, but, for most, this suicide attempt is something much more incomprehensible. Suicide is still seen by many to be the refuge of the desperate, the hopeless, and the infinitely selfish. This is easy enough to understand - most people could trace every single one of their actions to our evolutionary desire to remain alive - hence, the idea of deliberately ending your life seems inconceivably absurd and counter-intuitive to the majority of people.

There are cynics creeping out of the shady corners of the internet saying that Fry is attention seeking - why else, obviously, would he feel compelled to tell the general public? Suicide is, arguably, the most personal thing of all, so who would want to share such a painful experience unless they were courting widespread sympathy?

But this is the wrong attitude to take. Personally, I admire him more than ever. Mental illness, despite being sneered at and often rubbished-off as attention seeking, is a very real thing, and very dangerous thing. Bipolar, depression, eating disorders, these things are all killers.

Much praise has been lauded onto Fry for his courageous 'confession' of what he did, and for raising awareness of depression, bipolar and resulting self-destructive behaviour. The most admirable thing he said, however, has largely not been picked up, and I may not have done, had I not been through bouts of crippling depression for almost ten years myself.

Fry's story made it quite plain there was no discernible reason for why he tried to do what he did. Despite people's insatiable desire for everything to have meaning, and the mass media's desperate attempts to give what he did some context ("Ah! He was at such-and-such a conference. This must have been the catalyst..."), in all honesty the truth about depression is that there is no rhyme or reason to it at all.

This story struck a solemn chord with me because I too suffer debilitating melancholy. It wasn't so long ago I found myself curled up on the sofa, unable to speak, eat, move or think coherently, struggling to explain what was wrong with me. I don't suffer bipolar and I do not have manic episodes, but the sort of inexplicable, overwhelming sadness that can sometimes lead to suicide is a very common occurrence for those suffering with a mental illness and depression.

Understanding that there is no conscious reason for these feelings puts mental illness on a par with other illnesses. You wouldn't ask a woman with breast cancer why she had it, or why she was ill - saying "I have breast cancer" is a pretty satisfactory argument for most. Mental illness isn't any different, and it's just as much of a scary, alien thing to sufferers than other illnesses.

Mental illness ends up becoming a battle of wits: you, against yourself. When you feel so very adrift, it's difficult to cling onto sanity, and a grasp on the real world. Virginia Woolf was so terrified of her impending madness she stuffed her pockets full of rocks and drowned herself. She knew what was coming, and she had neither the will nor the inclination to put herself through it again.

Stephen Fry isn't special, or unique. I am not, and neither are the innumerable people out there living with mental illness. His public, and almost blasé admission that he tried to take his own life, however, hopefully will teach a lot of people about the nature of this nasty, prevalent beast.

I write this realising that Planet Ivy is all about taking a satirical slant - finding the funny. Some things, however, aren't funny - and suicide is one of them. If you, however, fancy a laugh then check these idiots over at www.neuronovo.com.

 

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