The past three decades have seen an exponential growth in the understanding and treatment options for depression, despite the fact that for much of that time, mental illness has remained a taboo subject in popular discourse. This was indeed the case, even as almost two-and-a-half million prescriptions were written for Prozac in the U.S. in 1988, the year after its FDA approval. But much has changed since then. For one thing, we’ve seen a full-on backlash against the pharmaceutical revolution in mental health treatment, leading to the popularity of non-drug treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation for less severe forms of depression.
We’ve also seen a popularization of candid discussions about the illness, leading to a spate of clickbait-y articles like “20 Celebrities Who Battled Depression” and serious, seemingly weekly features on social media depression. We can credit actor and writer Stephen Fry for a lot of our current familiarity and comfort level with the disease.
Ten years ago, Fry “came out” in his BBC documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, and since then, he’s openly discussed his struggle with his illness and his suicide attempts. In the videos here, you can see him do just that. At the top, in an interview immediately after the documentary came out, Fry discusses the “morbid” seriousness of his disease, which he compares to having “your own personal weather.” In dealing with it, he says, there are “two mistakes… to deny that it’s raining… and to say, ‘therefore my life is over. It’s raining and the sun will never come out.’”
Since making his diagnosis public, Fry has always sounded a note of hope. But his story, which he tells in more personal detail in the clip further up, illustrates the incredible travails of living with depression and mental illness, even under treatment that has brought him stability and success. Like the weather, storms come. He revealed his “black stages” in his 2006 documentary. Now, ten years on, Fry has revisited the struggle in a follow-up piece, The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, in which he opens up about more recent incidents, like his suicide attempt after interviewing Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s Minister for Ethics and Integrity and sponsor of the country’s notorious “Kill the Gays” bill. (Fry, who is gay, describes Lokodo as a “foaming frothing homophobe of the worst kind.”)
The “message” of his most recent film, writes The Independent, “was clear across the board: there is no quick fix for mental health and no catch-all solution.” As Fry says, “It’s never going to get off my back, this monkey, it’s always going to be there.” But as he re-iterates strongly in the Big Think interview above, “if the weather’s bad, one day it will get better.” This can’t happen in a sustained way, as it has for Fry, if we personally deny we’re depressed and don’t get help, or if we publically deny the disease, and force people living with it into a life of shame and needless suffering. "The stigma of mental illness," argues clinical psychologist Michael Friedman, "is making us sicker." But Fry, who has in the last ten years become the president of a mental health non-profit called Mind, is optimistic. "It's in the culture more," he says, "and it's talked about more." One hopes we see that talk turned into more action in the coming years.