Barely a week after reporting the suicide attempt of German referee, Babak Rafati, the media was awash with news of the death of Gary Speed, former international player and now manager of the Wales national side. He was just 42, enjoying great professional success and acclaim, when to the apparent shock of just about everyone, he took his own life.
I don’t intend to use this posting to dissect the life and times of this man. There’s nothing I can say that won’t have already been said many times by others, though it is with a real sense of grief that I reflect upon it. What I do want to discuss is the still-stigmatised condition – severe depression – that continues to take the lives of so many, with a particular emphasis on young men.
Whilst I am by no means an expert on the statistics when it comes to mental illness, it seems likely that the prevalence of suicide amongst young men may be connected to the fact that depression remains beneath the surface of conversation and somehow just ‘not the done thing’. We know that ignoring any serious physical condition is likely to lead to deterioration, but what’s less appreciated is that the covering up of severe psychological distress is likely to have an equivalent outcome. For those in the clutches of it, to simply ‘snap out of it’ is about as likely as a failed kidney miraculously mending itself.
So why is it that depression remains so hidden? I suspect it’s to do with the supposed un-manliness of having ‘feelings’ or ’emotions’, where psychological pain and its manifestation is somehow for ‘wimps’. If this hypothesis is true, then it’s unsurprising that young men -of all sectors of society- may develop a burden of pain that can simply no longer be tolerated and where there appears to be only one answer. However, there are wider ramifications too. Despite science and medicine understanding mental illness better than ever, we seem no closer to accepting it as a condition that needs to be acknowledged and managed like, say, diabetes. We also live in an increasingly macho culture, particularly in settings such as business and sport, where anyone participating, whether male or female, is at risk. Myths and fears of varying degrees of accuracy also prevail: might your mortgage application be at risk if you have a record of depression? Could you be overlooked for promotion if they find out at work? Might you be seen as malingering if you are signed off for something non-physical? Will people think you’re mad and avoid you? The list goes on.
Perhaps the most famous euphemism for depression was and is Winston Churchill’s ‘black dog’. The metaphor somehow externalises the condition and perhaps in a way this made it easier to manage. I don’t know. What does occur to me though is that the great wartime leader is possibly one of Britain’s most ‘macho’ figures and yet he had this ‘thing’ which he somehow managed and also named, to boot.
So what to do? We need to look out for eachother, more than ever. We need to understand the signs and know what to look for. We need to make it OK to share. We need to stamp out the stigma that clings to this.
For all any of us know, those nearest and dearest to us could be right under the cloud, right now. People are unbelievably ingenious when it comes to well-meaning deception. What is very clear though is that the black dog does not discriminate and the sooner we can say its name, the more likely it is that we can prevent the kinds of tragedies like the one made very public today.
In memory of Gary Speed 1969-2011.