That somebody felt so desperate and in such mental pain that they could not bear to live is obviously extremely sad, and I have every sympathy for Gary’s family and friends. I also have every sympathy for Gary – to take your own life is a terrifying thing for an individual to do.
But what struck me even more than the public outpouring of respect for this man, was the joyous tittle-tattle I overheard in my day-to-day life from ignorant people gossiping on buses, in shops, in offices…
On Monday, I overheard different people say – with evident delirious excitement at having something to dissect, despite their own clear ignorance of mental illness – such terrifyingly ignorant statements as:
- “Ooh, did you hear about Gary Speed? Ooh, what was that all about?” (Said as if they’d just heard that someone famous had been caught having an affair, or something equally salacious.)
- “How selfish of him. He had kids, and to do that just before Christmas? So selfish.” (Said as if to imply that if only Gary had waited until January 2, it would have been OK.)
- “But I saw him on TV the other day and he didn’t look depressed.” (Said as if to imply that people with depression and mental illness wear their pyjamas all day, their pants on their heads and shuffle about dribbling.)
In all of these situations, the people these statements were said to agreed with the first person, and joined in the gleeful bashing of Gary Speed for being so ‘mental’, ‘selfish’ or ‘deceptive’.
I’m annoyed with myself for not butting in and calmly explaining to these people how frightening their ignorance was, and suggesting that perhaps it would be a good idea for them to find out a little bit more about the many types of depression and mental illness, so that they could have more empathy next time something like this happens. Because there will, unfortunately, be a next time. And next time, it may not be a public figure: it may be their partner, their friend or even themselves. Regardless of being a public figure, Gary Speed was also someone’s partner, father and friend.
But I didn’t say anything because I felt too angry and too upset with them, and I knew I would not be able to talk calmly – in all likelihood I would have fumed, ranted and maybe even cried. And these are not actions that would have effectively put my point across – more than likely I would have merely reinforced their view that people with mental health problems are ‘deranged’.
Because I do have mental health problems – I was diagnosed with depression four-and-a-half years ago, and was too ill to work for almost two years. While most of the time I am now much, much better than I was, like everyone with mental illness, I still have times when I struggle. And sometimes I don’t feel brave enough, or well enough, to talk to people about it – especially when I realise how ignorant they are about mental illness, or how amused they are by the topic.
Mental illness can affect anyone. It is not a joke. It is not a subject to be laughed about over the water cooler in the office. Someone feeling so desperate that they take their own life is not a topic for gossiping about like an excited fishwife.
Gary Speed’s suicide has brought several issues into the open air, but the one that is most apparent to me is the glaring and desperate need for us to keep talking about mental illness, to fight to remove the unfortunate stigma attached to mental illness, and to work to educate those who don’t understand mental illness.
Figures from the Mental Health Foundation suggest that one in four people in the UK will be affected by some kind of mental health problem. So it is imperative that the gross ignorance surrounding mental illness is addressed.
There are already some good campaigns being run that are trying to do this. Time to Change has a lot of information on their website about ways to talk about mental illness openly, and offers advice for people wanting to find out more. Put simply, talking tackles discrimination. It really is that simple. It can take courage to talk about mental health (and I know I’ve failed at times to speak up when I hear ignorance about mental illness), but it’s the only way.
Mind is another excellent organisation fighting to help people with mental illness and to raise awareness, and it was only on November 28 that they published an article showing that recent Mind research proved mental health was still a taboo topic in the media. It’s frightening.
We must take something from Gary Speed’s death, and if that something is the ability to talk about mental illness, suicide and depression, then so be it. The ignorance surrounding these topics needs to be addressed, and now is as good a time as any to start.
And let’s start by stopping decrying something as ‘mental’ if we find it unusual. Let’s start by stopping calling something ‘mad’ if it is silly. Let’s start by stopping using all those terms as ‘nutty’, ‘manic’, ‘crazy’, 'batty', 'loopy' etc in derogative, light-hearted or dismissive ways. Even if you don’t feel able to start talking about mental health, you CAN stop using those terms in the wrong way.