Fry suicide attempt spotlights mental illness

Speaking up: How far have we come in our perceptions of depression? © Getty Images

Campaigners have welcomed comedian and writer Stephen Fry’s revelation that he tried to kill himself last year. Can a new spirit of openness make mental illness less frightening?

When he is in the middle of one of his manic phases, Stephen Fry says he is ‘so exuberant, so hyper.’

‘I can go three or four nights without sleeping and I’m writing and I’m so grandiose and so full of self-belief that it’s almost impossible to deal with me. I can’t stop speaking, I’m incredible, I go on shopping sprees.’

Does this sound enjoyable, if a little extreme? If so, consider that this exuberance is followed by episodes of deep depression, in which the writer and comedian is left entirely without hope and often without the desire to carry on living. Such is the nature of Fry’s mental illness that, unless he takes medication, he lives on a rollercoaster of vertiginous highs followed by crashing lows.

This week his accounts of being bipolar became more disturbing still with the disclosure that last year, while travelling, he made the latest in a long list of attempts to kill himself. The star was only saved by his producer finding him unconscious on a hotel room floor. The first such desperate act had been at the age of 17; the latest interview carried the painful message that a mental illness like Fry’s can be a lifelong challenge.

But campaigners welcomed his confession for another reason: they argue that feelings of shame about having a mental health problem are made worse by a culture of secrecy. Fry’s willingness to speak so frankly about the extremities of torture he has suffered will make a difference, they say, to perceptions about depression and suicide.

Organisations including the Samaritans partly hold the media to blame for misrepresenting suicides either as rational acts with obvious causes or, worse, as ‘shock-horror’ stories. The idea of a ‘tragedy’ befalling the famous tends, they say, to glamorise an act of self-obliteration when the reality is far from sensational.

For sufferers from the worst cases of depression, extreme feelings pointing towards self-destruction become all too mundane: the threat is ever-present of feeling so low you might take the ultimate, disastrous way out.

Plea for understanding

‘There is no why,’ says Stephen Fry describing the appeal of suicide to someone experiencing the extremes of desperation. ‘If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it.’

The Mental Health Foundation says that people aged 16-34 have more negative attitudes to mental illness than those over 35. So charities are putting enormous efforts into convincing young people, even more than the rest of the population, to look behind the headlines and take a humane view of those who are pushed to consider taking their own life. Is it possible, some will ask, to be understanding of something so difficult to understand, even for those caught up in it?

You Decide

  1. Do you think there is a social stigma attached to mental illness?
  2. Can you think of other examples of behaviour that is hard to reason with?

Activities

  1. Write a short profile of Stephen Fry, his character and public role, focusing on the idea of openness versus secrecy.
  2. Do some research into the language the media uses about mental illness: what effect does it have?

Some People Say...

“When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.’Mark Twain”

What do you think?

Q & A

I hope this never affects me.
The particular mental illness Stephen Fry suffers from, bipolar disorder, is rare: the charity Mind says between 1 and 2% of the population will suffer it and it usually develops strongly enough to be diagnosed in someone’s 20s or 30s. But you may have friends, family or workmates who are sufferers from this mental illness or another.
And then?
Stephen Fry and Mind, as well as other mental health charities and campaigning groups, hope that many of us will become more sensitive and understanding about mental disorders if sufferers feel able to talk about their condition openly.

Word Watch

Manic
Mania is the state of hyperactivity and excessive energy that afflicts bipolar people during their ‘highs’.
Grandiose
A description of someone with an inflated sense of their own importance and significance.
Bipolar
Also known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is now well diagnosed and can be treated with medication. Theories about the causes of the disorder include genetic factors, because it tends to run in families, combined with traumatic life events as a trigger.
Stigma
Literally a mark which sets someone apart as different. Some religions traditionally defined suicide as a sin, and strong moral disapproval for the act has been a feature of Christian societies since St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas tried to discourage the practice. But even though attitudes have been transformed in the modern era, mental health charities say sufferers from disorders which push them towards suicide still face disapproval and discrimination.

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