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Oct 9 2012

The value of a celebrity’s story

This week, comedian, actor and children’s author, David Walliams is the latest celebrity to publish his autobiography and to reveal his long-standing battle with depression. Simon Cowell recently spoke out about feeling unable to cope with juggling the demands of his US and UK show commitments. And since the tragic suicide of Gary Speed the Football Association are encouraging footballers to seek help early, recognising the potentially damaging impact of top-flight competition.

The cynical and uptight are all too quick to dismiss celebrity discussions about emotional well-being as a part of an increasingly tired arsenal to achieve column inches and raise book sales.

But for me, and others I know working in mental health promotion and suicide prevention, we welcome their honest accounts of facing emotional distress. I recognise their lives, laced as they are with the trappings of fame and wealth bear little relation to the lifestyle of ordinary Britons, but as role models (even when earned with dubious measures of talent or success), they can help to shine the light on an issue, that despite affecting 1 in 4 of us, continues all to often to be closeted away.

So today, World Mental Health Day, I renew my call for people from all walks of life to talk about mental health. By talking, listening, sharing, comparing and learning from each other’s experiences we are better equipped to manage our own well-being and improve the lives of others.

Talking openly applies to suicide too. 5,500 people take their own lives in the UK every year. And we need to face up to the fact that suicide happens and talk about it. How else can we possibly hope to help others who may be feeling suicidal if we don’t learn from the suicides of loved ones. Making society face up to suicide is an important step in suicide prevention. And, importantly, the evidence shows that if someone has feelings of wanting to take their own life that, contrary to popular opinion, if you explore those emotions with that person, they are less, not more likely to go through with the act. My mum experienced three episodes of depression, and went on took her own life in 2009.

For us as a family we always talked openly about her illness and since her death about her suicide. In so doing, we have avoided one of the biggest burdens associated with mental health problems, the pressure of having to watch what you say, and hide what you’re doing. Being frank requires strength and confidence that it is the right thing to do. And it requires society to accept the people that do speak out, and not turn away, shun or discriminate against them.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take. My legacy to my mum is to refuse to accept the mantle of public stigma and talk openly in order that it may encourage others to both seek the help they need and learn how to better support others. I hope World Mental Health Day will encourage others to do the same.