Sunday, May 9, 2010

Battling The Black Dog

By Jennifer O'Connell

I’ve always had an affinity with the journalist and bestselling novelist Allison Pearson. This may be because of the night in February 2008 when I was sitting up in bed, reading her last novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It, a semi-autobiographical account of the life of a working mother with two small children.

Perhaps it was her unflinching honesty, or maybe it was the passage where she discovers the raisins her son keeps leaving on the kitchen floor aren’t actually raisins, but - half way through page 108 - I found myself in labour. A few hours later, my tiny son arrived into the world, almost six weeks before his due date. I’ve never met Pearson, but since she precipitated my premature labour, I’ve always considered her a kind of friend.

Allison Pearson

I was shocked, then, to read her final Daily Mail column last week, in which she revealed she had been suffering from chronic, terrifying depression, the kind in which the nearby motorway bridge had taken on a strange, middle of the-night allure. She wrote how her therapist had asked when she had these thoughts.

"‘Usually at 4am.’How often are you awake at 4am? ‘Every morning.’ Every morning for how long? ‘I’m not sure.

Eighteen months.’ ?

‘‘I said I didn’t like taking tablets unless they were absolutely necessary.

‘Don’t worry. We just need to get you off rock bottom so you can start to get better.’

‘‘Rock bottom? Get better? What was she talking about??" ‘I’m not mad,’ I protested, ‘I’m a national newspaper columnist.’ And we both started to laugh."

Pearson went on to write about how she has become a ‘Sandwich Woman’; one of the growing numbers of women who postponed motherhood until her 30s and now finds herself trapped between the needs of her children and her ageing parents. ‘‘Permanently tired and distracted, I felt like I was being a lousy mother to my two wonderful children.

And I didn’t want to let it show, or God forbid, seek help," she wrote.

If Pearson tackled one of society’s lingering taboos in her 2002 novel - the myth that motherhood is an overwhelmingly enriching, fulfilling and totally satisfying experience, when in fact it’s just as often boring, frustrating and anxious - then last week, she set about dismantling another.

Although depression is as common as indigestion - one in four of us will suffer it in the course of a year - only a tiny fraction would ever admit to it.

Which is why the response tends to be so overwhelming when someone like Pearson opens up about it, or when Marian Keyes blogged in January about how she was ‘‘laid low with crippling depression’’.

‘‘I’m living in hell," she wrote. ‘‘I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t write, I can’t read, I can’t talk to people.

The worst thing is that I feel it will never end."

Marian Keyes

Keyes - as the outpouring of comments on her website revealed - is far from alone. In fact, people are ten times more likely to suffer from depression now than in 1945,with women and teenage girls twice as susceptible as men.

‘‘Is it women who are mad, or is it the society we live in?" asked Pearson. ‘‘We always suspected there would be a price for Having It All, and we were happy to pay it; but we didn’t know the cost would be our mental health."

But that’s not the whole story. Depression is far from a uniquely female phenomenon.

The truth, in fact, may simply be that, if women struggle to admit it, then men find it virtually impossible.

Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists points out that men are just as likely to suffer from depression, but much less likely to ask for help. They are also more inclined to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

One study showed men between the ages of 45 and 54 are seven times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than women, but half as likely to talk about them. While 85 per cent of us believe anyone could suffer from a mental health problem, two thirds would not tell anyone if we did.

Since his death from a suspected heart attack ten days ago, a different Gerry Ryan has emerged to the brash, bombastic, often outrageous and always hilarious presenter, whose voice was as familiar as the sound of the kettle boiling.

On the day after his death, Marian Finucane spoke on her Radio One programme about how she had seen him earlier that week and he had been ‘‘very, very stressed’’.

In this newspaper, his friend and colleague Gareth O’Callaghan - who has spoken about his own battle with depression - wrote ‘‘Gerry had many demons. It was clear on the occasions we talked that he was not always a happy man. . . [he]was deeply insecure, and he hated people to know that’’.

‘‘I wish you had shown that side of you which proved you were just as soft as putty," O’Callaghan wrote.

Whatever the truth about the pressures Ryan was under, the man for whom nothing was off-limits - a presenter who, in fact, was sanctioned early in his career for over-use of the word ‘penis’ during school holidays - chose not to talk about them; and perhaps that’s something we should all respect.

But it still doesn’t address the question: why is sadness such a taboo? Why is it still so hard to say you’re struggling, and even harder to hear someone you love admit it?

A couple of weeks ago, the Department of Health launched the See Change campaign, designed to de-stigmatise all kinds of mental illness. The event was attended by Miriam O’Callaghan and Eileen Dunne, but later that day, there was no mention of it on RTE news bulletins, and little coverage in the next day’s national papers. The blanket silence with which the initiative was greeted seemed to underline just how much it was actually needed.

The total dearth of media coverage prompted the Mental Health Minister John Moloney to raise the issue at an Oireachtas Committee hearing. ‘‘It struck me as if there was a conspiracy there," he said. ‘‘I am just left to wonder if we try this again who will we turn to?"

If depression and mental health problems continue to spread at the current rate, by 2020, it will be the second most disabling condition in the world - after heart disease.

It’s time to confront the black dog in the room. Because ignoring it is not going to make it go away.

This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on May 9, 2010


  1. Always good to see an article on such a topic. But I'm confused as to whether women suffer depression twice as much as men, or at equal rates, as both are claimed in the article.

    In any case, we do need to talk about it more - it's horrible to think that some people share their suffering with no one.

  2. Ah yes - I see I didn't make that clear. Women report suffering depression at twice the rate men do, but some experts believe that this is not because women are more likely to suffer from it; just that men are less likely to admit it, even anonymously in surveys, and maybe even to themselves.

    I suppose the problem is there's no empirical way to measure depression. But it's striking that men in that age group are much more likely to think about suicide.

    Hope that clears it up a bit. Thanks for your comment.

  3. This really resonated with me - it's like everyone has to be happy and cheerful and positive all the time no matter what. Admitting to anything else is considered boring or a personal failure. Hope you don't mind if I share this.

  4. Wonderful post, and something I've blogged about myself ( if you want to check it out). It's hard to accept that there's still such a stigma about such a common (and treatable) condition, and even tho I don't mention it too often, many people are visibly uncomfortable with discussing it.
    Thanks for visiting this thorny topic.

  5. I come from a small village in Ireland where unfortunately suicide is not a stranger. Often the suicide is traced back to depression. Depression is a hidden stigmatised issue and there needs to be more awareness about the symptoms to look out for. I read Marian Keyes website where she talked about depression and she sounded in so much pain, so many others could relate, it just went to show how many suffer in silence. Thanks for highlighting this.

  6. God (or no God, depending) this is a powerful column. I should either buy the BP more often, or remember to set my watch by your blog each Sunday Ms Jenny. x

  7. Thanks so much for all the comments - much appreciated.

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