By Jennifer O’Connell
‘Taboo-shatterer Iris Robinson’ is not a phrase I ever expected to use.
In fact, of all the politicians on this island you could have imagined lifting the veil on one of society’s dark secrets, the north’s first lady would not top many ‘most likely to’ lists.
Until last week, Robinson was best known in the south for her repulsive, and woefully prehistoric, views on homosexuality: she has described it as an abomination which made her feel sick, and invited homosexuals to meet with one of her staff, a psychiatrist whom she suggested could “help turn them around”.
So it was surprising – or maybe, in retrospect, it wasn’t – when the 60-year-old mother of three chose to resign last week from the Northern Ireland Assembly, citing her long-running battle with depression.
"Over the years, I have undergone a long series of operations and though I have never talked about it publicly, I have, against this background, also battled against serious bouts of depression,” her admirably candid resignation statement revealed.
"Only those who have faced similar challenges in life will know the ordeal faced by those who are profoundly depressed and the distress caused to those around them as they grapple with personality changing illness.”
It’s tempting to observe that maybe, with treatment, she could be “turned around”, but that would be mean-spirited.
It wouldn’t be fair on Robinson, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair on the estimated 25 per cent of the population (according to one recent US study, this figure could be as high as fifty per cent) who have, at one time or another, struggled with depression.
And yet, most of us would rather admit to having battled an STD – or, say, alien visitors from Mars - than mental illness.
It’s odd, because we’re hardly short of role models.
Spike Milligan, Mary Shelley and Henry James all famously struggled with it. Stephen Fry regularly tweets that he’s been having a “bad day”; Jim Carrey and John Cleese have both spoken about the crippling depression they have suffered, while actor Owen Wilson was hospitalised after a suicide attempt in recent years. JK Rowling says she suffered severe depression in her mid-twenties, when she found herself broke and raising her daughter alone.
And it’s not confined to tortured artists.
The BBC recently screened a documentary called Mind Games, in which a long line of sport stars spoke openly about their battles with depression, including Frank Bruno, Serena Williams, Stan Collymore, Kelly Holmes, Paul Gascoigne, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Marcus Trescothick.
Yet, for ‘real’ people in ‘proper’ jobs, it’s much more difficult to admit to.
And so we are left in the peculiar situation where we know all about the depression struggles of, say, Natalie Imbruglia and Fern Britton, but absolutely nothing about those of the people close to us in real life.
Part of the problem, I think, is with the language we use to describe conditions like depression or anxiety.
Terms like ‘disease’ and ‘disorder’ and ‘mental illness’ hardly help to bolster anyone’s positive feelings about themselves. On the other hand, referring to it as a ‘state of mind’ belittles the enormity of what people with depression go through. You may as well just tell sufferers to snap out of it.
Then there’s bizarre, and frankly unhelpful, mystique surrounding postnatal depression.
During my first pregnancy, while I was still in the devouring everything I could read on the topic phase, I lived in fear that I would somehow ‘contract’ this terrifying illness, which seemed – according to the When Things Go Wrong sections of my pregnancy books - to descend without warning, like pleurisy, in the days after giving birth.
Since then, I have come to the conclusion that any new mother who manages to get through the first, sleepless six months of her baby’s life without at least one cycle of negative thinking, a bout of severe anxiety or unexplained sadness, or feelings of loss for the life she has left behind, is extremely fortunate – or, more likely, fibbing.
And yet, we’ve all been guilty of reinforcing the taboo, putting on a brave face and trying to pretend that those episodes of sobbing over a pile of dirty babygros never happened, for fear that someone will think we’re – and this is surely the phrase everyone who has had even the briefest acquaintance with depression fears most - ‘not coping’.
Depression, stress and anxiety are parts of life – for at least one in every four of us. It can happen after an illness, a period of stress at work or college, a retirement, a divorce, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, or for no obvious reason at all.
And it can strike at any age. I had my first panic attack playing in a cousin’s house when I was just ten year’s old. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and I didn’t have the language to ask, until a couple of years later, while watching an episode of Glenroe I self-diagnosed petit-mal epilepsy, and announced solemnly to my surprised father that that was what I had.
He was able to explain panic attacks in such a way that took the fear out of them, so that when they struck again in my teens and twenties, I regarded them as a recurring, but not a terrifying, nuisance - like eczema.
I was lucky to have had a head start in understanding the phenomenon, so when, ten years later, I got stuck in a taxi in Paris during the strikes and the snow, I knew I probably wasn’t actually suffering a stroke; and when, another decade on, I gave birth prematurely, and had the repeated sense for a few days afterwards that I was drifting out of my own body, I knew that horrible feeling would pass too.
Iris Robinson has promised she will speak more about her battle with depression when she’s feeling well enough again. I, for one, hope she gets there.
First published in The Sunday Business Post on January 3, 2010