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There’s No Stigma – Get Back to Work

October 9, 2012

NB: Articles like this suggest that the idea of there being ‘no stigma’ attached to celebrity depression is too simplistic. Although workplace discrimination is probably not as much of an issue for ‘celebrities’, those in that position instead face suspicion of the ‘how can you be depressed if you’re dating a supermodel and driving a Ferrari’ type – a suspicion which may in turn make life more difficult for those of us without equally famous partners or supercars.

The twitter spat between MIND and India Knight over the latter’s column on celebrity depression memoirs has been, mostly, of a predictable pattern: columnist writes piece with enough controversy to ensure readers are interested, campaigning group draws attention to it, frustrations are vented at the author, the author responds with a return fire of abuse, both sides go away feeling kind of angry and like the other side is stupid and illiterate.

Of course, the famous Times paywall compounded the problem, as many of the people complaining about the article had been unable to read it, and the piece was somewhat misrepresented by MIND in the first instance. (Although her comparison between bipolar disorder and a cocaine binge hardly suggests real sympathy – at best, you feel she acts sympathetic because she feels socially obliged to do so).

Allistair Campbell wrote a strong response to the two major errors in Knight’s piece, which can be found here. However, in this case, both sides have made some good points.

Where Knight is right is if you read her argument as saying not ‘there’s no stigma around depression’, but, as she has later insisted ‘there’s no stigma around celebrity depression. Now, this is a very generous reading of her article, and were she more honest she would accept that the sense of what actually appears in print elides this distinction (although it’s clear she did intend to make the distinction). I don’t accept the terminology of ‘stigma’, for reasons I’ve made clear elsewhere, but the discrimination experienced by people with depression is often linked to their material circumstances.

An actor may be able to get away with being a little unpredictable, or a newspaper columnist who works from home can do so from the comfort of a bed with the covers over her head and the blinds drawn. There is more leeway if your name itself is part of your value. On the other hand, in the context of an increasingly precarious labour market, someone struggling to pay the bills in a minimum wage job, who knows that there are hundreds of other people just waiting to take that job, is unlikely to want to disclose that, due to depression, they may need a couple of days off, sometimes. Certainly they won’t want to put it down to chronic illness.

Similarly, Knight’s point about the ‘depression memoir’ is important – celebrities are in a far better position from which to recover from mental illness, simply due to their having more money. Easy stories of depressed celebrities recovering after a visit to the Priory whitewash the experience of those who are caught on interminable waiting lists for group CBT, or trying to recover in a financially struggling and understaffed acute unit. It’s easy to recover from depression if you don’t have to put on a death-mask for work each morning, and if you receive treatment as soon as the condition emerges.

The other problem with celebrity depression memoirs is that they don’t seek to normalise the experience. If they are akin to anything, it’s the ghoulish visits to Bethlem Hospital to gawp at the loons – we don’t tend to view celebrities as ‘like us’, so their tragedies provide a safe, vicarious distance from which to experience a more emotionally extreme life.

So much for where Knight gets it right, then. The real problem with her article isn’t the easy cliches of ‘everyone gets depressed’ or ‘we all understand’, but her characterisation of the differences between celebrities and ‘normal people’. She says “You long for someone to say: “I felt like crap for two years and then I got over it.” Which is, by the way, what normal people do.”

This narrative of illness as trivial life event which is a minor inconvenience which then goes away, and the suggestion that celebrity accounts which don’t fit this narrative are somehow ‘abnormal’ is part of the same narrative of illness used to justify government cuts to the disability budget. Everyone gets depressed. Everyone gets over it. Celebrities use it to sell books, it’s not a big deal, and if you let it be anything more than that you’re both abnormal and somehow attempting to gain unearned benefit from it. Knight accuses JK Rowling of using her depression to increase her book sales, but she might as well be accusing benefit claimants, as the argument is the same – ‘normal people’ get over it, but ‘you’ expect special treatment.

It is this that is truly harmful about Knight’s article – not the factual inaccuracies which anyway pepper most popular discourse on mental illness, and which must be corrected each time they appear, but her reinforcement of the harmful narrative that any ‘invisible’ illness is no illness at all. Until you are ‘rummaging in bins’, you’re fine – so get back to work, don’t make a fuss, keep calm and carry on like ‘normal people’ do. Her article is exactly the kind of narrative which perpetuates discrimination around mental illnesses, but worse than that, in the context of austerity, with the lifelines which many seriously mentally ill people rely on just to survive being severed, the picture of depression painted by Knight contributes to society turning a blind eye while its most vulnerable members die of political invisibility.

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