We Need to Talk: Don’t you just love my new, trendy illness?

Anon. 16 May 2014

It’s supposed to be the virtue of the internet, isn’t it? That after a few weeks everything you write will just disappear. Well, maybe my words will, but the same can’t be said for Janet Street-Porter, whose article on mental illness I accidentally unearthed with a Google search last week.

It’s entitled ‘Depression? It’s just the new trendy illness!’ And no: unlike the title of this column, it’s not aiming for irony.

The essential premise of Street-Porter’s article is that a relatively recent revolution in attitudes to depression, triggered and perpetuated by celebrities being open about mental illness, is a bad thing. She describes stress as a “badge of honour”, quoting Fiona McIntosh, the one-time editor of Elle: “Depression is the new black…you do wonder how much of this acute unhappiness we bring on ourselves.”

Is depression the 'new black'?                                                             Credit: Alpha

The underlying assumption that depression is some kind of choice – a fashion statement to conform to – is misguided and frankly offensive. I particularly resent it because, while I was suffering from the so-called “new, trendy illness”, I struggled enormously with the sense that I should be happy. My home life was as stable as could be; I had a big and wonderful network of friends; I was doing very well at school.

But despite all that, this relentless, incapacitating force was discolouring my life; why, I used to ask myself furiously, am I not happy? But, as I wrote in my first column: depression is not an emotion, it’s an illness.

Street-Porter would no doubt have it that I was a selfish, middle-class, fashion-conscious teenager. Perhaps she’d be right. But that’s not why I developed depression; I developed depression for the same reason I got tonsillitis last year and a cold last week: I fell ill. And the more I told myself I had no right to be unhappy, the worse I felt.

It's not rocket science: depression, like the common cold, is an illness.             Credit: anna gutermuth

But it’s not only the lack both of understanding and empathy that makes Street-Porter’s article almost farcical. It’s the dismissiveness of her attitude to a real, severe and common illness. Depression, she writes, “assuming there is such a thing”, is just a label given to melodramatic women experiencing mid-life crises, who “whinge about a ‘black hole’”: “Get a grip, girls!”

Indeed, Street-Porter mainly reserves her disdain for female sufferers, although later in the article she expresses discomfort that “men are jumping on the depression bandwagon”. She elaborates in what is probably her most absurd couple of sentences: “The idea of feeling sorry for a bloke with low self-esteem is, frankly, risible. Let's just call it karmic revenge for all those years men have been in charge of everything.”

I’m sure Stephen Fry, Winston Churchill and Stephen Hawking would love to be told that their bouts of depression were the universe’s way of punishing them for the patriarchy.

Now, I’m very aware that taking quotes out of context is dangerous; it invariably makes them sound worse, right? Well, Street-Porter writes at one point, “there's virtually no stigma at all attached to saying you're suffering from stress these days”. What an ordinary, harmless appreciation of society’s changing attitudes, I hear you cry; does Street-Porter pull it all out the bag at the end, consolidating her few vaguely valid points into a stirring and unexpected conclusion that expresses factually-accurate sympathy with those afflicted with depression?

Well, no. That quote is actually preceded by a bona fide complaint that “Stress has become so acceptable, the last government decided that the NHS would make counselling available for a whole variety of mental illnesses, from stress to depression to panic attacks and low self-esteem, totally gratis.”

I think she wants the reader to consider that a bad thing.

Of course, all this was written in 2010; things have moved on in the last four years. But not as much as they should have done. Kate Moss’s damaging mantra, born in 2009, that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” is still used as an almost religious commandment by some of those afflicted with eating disorders. Statements from journalists such as Street-Porter and the earlier-mentioned Fiona McIntosh only entrench the disconcerting view that mental illness is 'trendy'.

Kate Moss has been accused of encouraging mental illness.                            Credit: Barbro Andersen

But the birth of the new celebrity is brewing. Statements like Moss’s are being seen for what they are: dangerous and disturbing. Instead we are being shown healthy, constructive reactions to such ways of thinking, for example Jennifer Lawrence’s entertaining declaration at last year’s Oscars that “I can name a lot of things that taste better than skinny feels. Potatoes, bread, Philly cheese, steaks and fries…”

Healthy, successful role-models are useful. But so too are tales of recovery. Mental illnesses are isolating, so it’s nice to know there are people out there feeling the same way as you.

So if people like Street-Porter are claiming that those opening up are copycat ‘trendy’ egotists, is it any wonder those suffering from mental illness are still afraid to be honest? Fortunately such crass naïveté seems to be a thing of the past. But we still have a long way to go.