For years now people have been pointing out that there's something of a taboo around the subject of mental health; in fact, they've pointed it out so much that the taboo has more or less inverted itself into the opposite, a craze. Forests of statistics have sprung up about suicide rates; there are anti-depression initiatives in previously neglected areas like sport; social media heaves with reminders to pay attention to the subject. All this airtime for a former no-go area is great, but it does come at a price. Like climate change, 'mental health' is a catch-all term sheltering a huge number of related but separate phenomena. Like climate change, it can - if overused - start to lose its meaning. The idea of this collection of blogs is to connect the reader with 'mental health' not as a poster graphic or a Facebook meme, but a series of personal experiences.
The vagueness of 'mental health' as a label means that, like 'madness' for the Victorians, it's in danger of becoming a shorthand for any human behaviour we struggle to understand. It's become standard for the media to mention 'a history of mental health problems' in the reporting of murder cases. Often this might be true, but there are very obviously millions of people who feel anxious, depressed, even suicidal, and yet mean no harm to others. It's not much use having an online campaign encouraging you to 'open up about your mental health issues' if, two or three notches down on the same timeline, there is an article implying those exact same 'issues' are what makes a killer.
We need different ways of discussing and reporting these things. But where do we start, when depression and its counterpart conditions are so slippery, so poorly understood, that we've barely even got a working definition that everyone agrees on?
It's beyond my remit (luckily) to answer the question. I don't understand psychopathology especially well, not having pursued my scientific career beyond GCSE biology (got an A, to be fair), and the recent behaviour of some sections of the press has more or less convinced me I don't understand journalism, either. But it seems important to build up the biggest possible archive of anecdotal evidence, which again is why things like this Huffington Post initiative are important. It's no good saying depression is mostly just 'feeling a bit sad', as Katie Hopkins did last year in one of her trademark look-at-me tweets; but it's not all that helpful to liken it to cancer either, because it doesn't manifest itself physically in the way cancer does. All we can do is observe causes and effects, and try to counter both of them.
That's why listening to a range of personal testimonies seems as good a way forward as any. Crass as Hopkins was in suggesting that all depression sufferers need is 'a pair of running shoes and fresh air', I don't think she was setting out to ridicule most of the people she offended. It was just, like so many ill-fated comments, a failure of empathy. She assumed that her own experience was also true for everyone else. If we can learn one thing from a heightened understanding of depression, it's that other brains do not necessarily work the same way as ours; others' assumptions, their reactions, are not always ours. We have huge amounts in common, cognitively, but we also need to work constantly to bridge the gap between our own brain and the billions of others out there in the world. That's what empathy is, and it's one of the most critical life skills a person can possess.
And that, hopefully, is where comedians can come in handy. Inasmuch as the old 'sad clown' stereotype rings true, it's because comedy - like any sort of writing, or performance - involves making yourself sensitive, and forming connections. Common ground is where comedy works. That isn't to say that all comedians are bothered about bridge-building with their fellow humans, any more than all comics are secret depressives. Just that comedy is, at heart, a collaborative activity. It involves a meeting of minds, the finding of shared assumptions and truths. Some kind of empathy is essential to an artist of any sort, even if that art ends up being jokes about your dick. Laughter might not be the 'best medicine' in every situation - these days prescription drugs are often more highly recommended - but when it comes to this tough, often very unfunny subject, comedians are not the worst place to start.
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