According to statistics, about 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year. Globally, there’s around 350 million people diagnosed with depression. Depression is also the leading cause of disability worldwide and whilst more women are affected than men, more men than women will commit suicide because of this condition.
There are 228 million articles available on Google when you search for ‘depression’. Around half as many focus solely on the symptoms of depression. Around a fifth of that number then look at how friends and family can help their loved ones suffering with depression. Almost all of these treat depression with respect, concern; the narrative voice will be Very Serious and the content will maintain a Proper Sense of Appropriateness.
Yet almost all those diagnosed will admit to feeling ashamed, weak, or unable to talk about their mental health at one time or another. Many struggle to talk to their friends and family about what they are feeling, and many more would refuse to disclose such information to their employer.
But does depression need to be depressing? Do we need to be So Serious all the time? Could it help, perhaps, to laugh about it?
Depression isn’t something many people laugh about.
A comedian might point out bits and pieces, capture a part of the tragedy and make it silly. But many of us don’t know how to approach someone else’s health issue with a wry smile and a pithy joke, let alone our own.
Sitting in the Hawley Arms in Camden, the one-time drinking hole of the eminently self-destructive Amy Winehouse, this is precisely what my flatmate and I were doing.
We needed to talk about depression because I needed to understand it and she needed me to understand it: her shaggy black dog. The one that had been stalking her for months.
So we laughed about it. Chuckling as she related her Christmas dinner of curry, prosecco and prozac. Cackling over her silly brain, my silly brain, the silly things that brains do when their neurology goes haywire. It might not even have been that funny. But we needed to laugh. Laughing made the situation normal and far less terrifying.
Because that was how it felt before: terrifying, overwhelming, impossible.
Take an average Monday night. She’d gone to a gig. Behaviour had been erratic for a while. I told myself not to worry but I had a Feeling. One so strong I was prepared to raise all the alarms when I realised everyone else had gone to an after party but she wasn’t with them. Oh yes: anxiety girl was straight in there, jumping to the worst conclusions and freaking out and generally being a giant panicky panic.
She arrived home. I told myself I’d worried for nothing.
But I hadn’t worried for nothing. Over tepid cider in that north London pub, I learnt she really nearly didn’t come home that night. It was only because her taxi driver was a decent sort that she was delivered home safe.
Yet some how we laughed about this.
Now, I know that depression is far from a one-size-fits-all experience. It’s not even consistent size for the person with depression. To deal with all its many, many, many facets, it feels like you need something like the magical travelling pants to cope. Something correctly fitting for each occasion – whether that’s tight or loose or comfortxcore – making up the difference between your actual self and the one you see through depression tinted glasses.
Writing this post, I can’t pretend to be an expert of any kind. I don’t want to pretend like I have answers for anyone. What I can say is that there are certain things that have helped me emerge from my own dark corners, and things that I know have helped others.
One of those things is humour.
Back at the Edinburgh Book Festival 2012, I met Ruby Wax. Sort of. She walked through the box office where I was busy trying to draw a ‘flittermouse’ hard at work, and she asked for directions to the author’s tent. I blinked, pointed towards the yurt, and shrugged as she strode off to be greeted by someone a tad more fangirly than me.
At the time, I didn’t really have much idea who she was. More concerned with the fact Neil Gaiman was milling around Charlotte Sq, and that Charles Fernyhough (neuroscientist and author and total nerd-idol) would be arriving any minute. Later on in the festival, I learnt a little more about her. There to talk about her then-new book, her focus lay on how our minds can send us spinning, making us mad as our inner voices become internal critics, our smallest fears into looming goliaths. Of course, ever the entertainer, Wax looks at such mental monsters with humour. By making her readers (and audiences) laugh, she addressed neurological dissonance and makes mental illness something infinitely less scary, less unapproachable, less shameful, less bleak.
That’s one of the many powers underpinning our ability to find something funny.
It allows us to talk about the things we’d rather avoid. It normalises truths we’d usually ignore. Even if when said truth is pretty f*cked up, it’s liberating to hear something genuine and to move past the bull and falseness that permeates every day “I’m fine, you?” conversation. Laughing at issues where social stigma usually prevents it from being discussed seems to dissolve the taboo just a little.
Perhaps this is why those hypersensitive moments where our skin is at its thinnest is so often where comedians draw their best observations and writers their most poignant insights. It’s the point where something Other meets something Real and it cracks us up. Even the phrase ‘cracks us up’ intimates the relationship we have with comedy. In some way, it takes us apart and then puts us back together, just slightly changed.
Now I’m not saying you should rib your friend when he’s down, or that you should crack a joke and tell someone to smile when they’re deep in the darkness of depression. Not at all. Don’t do that.
All I’m trying to say is that sometimes things don’t have to be stony-faced to be serious. That even something like depression can be well served by a little lightness in our daily dealings, particularly if we’re trying to tackle the stigmas around it.
There’s probably a whole other post to be written about the books that have demonstrated this balance (see a brief list below). But if you want a little more reading, all you have to do is look at Lemony Snicket or Roald Dahl or JK Rowling or Matt Haig or any other number of writers to see how they’ve taken something very dark and transformed it into something we can face.
So yes, a lot of the time we do need to treat depression with quietness and depth. And we can’t ignore that there are times a smile or a laugh can be used to disguise our true mental states. But depression is a thing where sometimes our friends need us to dance around the room with them, or simply sit at the other end of the phone in silence and let them know they’re not alone. Sometimes we need a hug. Sometimes we need space. And sometimes we need to laugh and feel normal again, even if it’s just for an hour or two in a pub with some really awful cider.
If you have depression or know someone that does…
If you need or want support, then check out MIND charity’s page. It comes with some great PDFs and advice and also a handy phone number that you can call if you really need someone to talk to. They explain depression in much greater detail than I have, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support, as well as tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.
Some reads that you also might enjoy are below:
Matt Haig: Reasons to Stay Alive (2015)
Matt Haig: Shopping is hell and kindness is therapeutic – what I learned from being depressed at Christmas (Guardian Observer, 2015)
Ruby Wax: Sane New World (2012)
Chris Cox: Eeyore: Literature’s archetypal outsider (Guardian, 2011)
Professor Green: Men shouldn’t suffer in silence with depression and anxiety (Guardian, 2014)
Sally Brampton: Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression (2009)
If you’re feeling really nerdy and like books – I’m doing this online course on Literature and Mental Health with Future Learn in February and will be blogging incessantly about it then. Join in and we can have our own little book group!
— Neil Hughes (@enhughesiasm) March 30, 2016
And this quote, just for luck.