Day 4- I searched TED for depression

A happy way to start a Friday morning? Or does it make you feel uncomfortable? Because according to Ruby Wax in her talk, “What’s so funny about mental illness?” there is still a huge stigma around the subject.
Wax gives a fast paced, humorous account of her own breakdown, which she tells us was neither Kafka-esque or suitable for Cate Blanchett to play in the movie role of her life. Instead, she took to her bed after her daughter’s school sports day only to wake up in an institution. In there, she felt as if she’d found, ‘her people’.
Having worked in a psychiatric hospital for two years before I left Ireland, I personally held a number of issues with the system. The differences between public and private hospitals were vast, and I often felt patients’ length of stay in the private system was as much governed by their level of health cover as it was their condition. I frequently overheard conversations between people where they compared their woes, their level of depression, the number of times they’d been hospitalised, their psychiatrist, their medications, and wondered if this was indeed the right environment for them. Surely they would be better in a more positive environment, learning to view their home rather than a hospital as a safe haven?
Then I think about Ruby Wax’s stark comments. If you have a mental illness, (I’ve heard similar reports from people following head injuries), people can’t ‘see’ the condition. You don’t have a chest x-ray, or a cast on your leg, or a drip attached to your arm. Wax tells us instead of flowers and sympathy she received a couple of phone calls telling her to ‘perk up’. As if she hadn’t thought of that.
I think many of us are guilty of this to some extent. I’ll put my hands up and admit it. I have been close to several people who have been depressed. I can pride myself on recognising the signs; lethargy, irrational decisions, lack of interest, etc. etc. But what to do? You can advise them to seek help, try to find activities for them to do, offer to listen yet they may still be unresponsive. Reflecting on the stigma that still surrounds mental illness and some of the points made in the talks I wonder if the closest person to the depressed individual suffers more by virtue of the fact that others around them simply fail or refuse to notice? Depression can be a destructive disease for the family or partners of those inflicted with it as much as for the sufferer. Perhaps if we all opened our arms a little wider, if we took a look outside the small frame of our own life, we would be more tolerant of our friend’s partners, our work colleagues, our extended family’s mental states, and that could ease the burden on everybody involved?
For me, the beauty of Wax’s talk wasn’t that it produced any astounding new ideas for me, but that she caused me to reflect in this manner. I do identify and agree strongly with her point about why we are more prone to depression now than ever. In typically comedic fashion, she tells us the difference between us and ancient man. Ancient man, the hunter-gatherer, when he felt under attack, underwent a peaking of his inner alarm systems, killed the beast and ate in. Modern man surely doesn’t have the same capacity to kill and eat his threats, be they his boss, the parking inspector, that rude waiter in the local cafe. It’s a simplistic image but one which I feel illustrates the number of stresses and strains we’re subjected to in daily life.
As a positive way of dealing with her own depression and to reach out to others in need, Hannah Breacher began to write love letters to strangers. In her talk of the same name, Breacher tells us her own mother used to write letters to her and so it felt natural for Breacher to adopt this activity. She left the letters in random places for strangers to find and later on, made a promise on the internet that she would send a handwritten letter to anybody in need who asked for it. She passionately condemns modern formats of communication using Facebook and Twitter, saying that making a diary of our pain shouldn’t necessarily be about efficiency. I agree with her statement that there are few things more beautiful than the art form of letter writing; the signing, the doodles, the mailing and the knowledge that the person who wrote on this piece of paper sat down and thought of only you as they wrote it, rather than the seven other people they may have been engaged in conversation with on Facebook at the time.
Breacher isn’t the only person to have the idea of bringing letter writing back en-vogue. As an Australian example of one initiative, I’d strongly advise people to check out the fantastic, ‘Women of Letters’. Breacher may be one of the first in recent times to document the strong body of anecdotal evidence in favour of restoring positive mental health through the simple letter. She can tell you about the woman who left love letters dotted around her house in order to communicate with her traumatised husband who’d returned from Afghanistan, or the man who was about to kill himself now living safely surrounded by the letters of love and support from complete strangers.
Neither of these talks are my favourite from TED so far, but their sentiment should be reflected on by every one of us. Don’t even look at them if you’re going to sit in a room alone and think about their subject on an intellectual level. It’s an insult to their creators. Watch them if maybe today, tomorrow or next year, it will inspire you to strike up a conversation with somebody about mental illness, or to open your eyes a little more to those around you. That, I believe, is where their value lies.


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