"I wanted to die, so buy my book!" The media needs to stop using mental health as marketing

No names, no pack drill.

There was a time when I got really quite ill. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t really function. It was at the end of a landslide of life events:

My long-term partner and I split up and I had to leave Ireland because I no longer had anywhere to live, I was skint and stuck beneath a pile of debt. I didn’t know where my next work was coming from and, being a freelance writer, I was screwed because my growing depression meant I wasn’t able to line up words in pleasing ways which is how I’ve predominantly made my bones since 2005. I was screwed. And then my parents, my friends — including my dear departed friend Lyra — and others help lift me out of it. It was a slow, slow, slow process and not a moment of it was easy.

I don’t tell you that to sell this newsletter or to sell some book I may one day write. I tell you because I want you to know that mental ill-health is not an abstract concept to me. I have lived in the null space of depression, where nothing feels good and nothing feels bad, you just stop feeling at all. To call it ‘sadness’ is to show you don’t really know how depression eats you up from the inside. It doesn’t even want to give you the understandable pain of misery — not consistently, at least — but instead, it just flattens you out to a blankness.

The media is full of people who have experienced mental illness and turned that experience into something that can be marketed and minted time after time. Those people — and yes, I have specific individuals in mind — have turned their experiences with mental ill-health into a badge that they can pull out whenever they receive criticism or need to justify their views on the world.

“You hate my book? Well, 22 years ago to the day, I nearly killed myself.” I’m glad those people didn’t die. I’m glad for every person who is a nearly-died and not a number on the list of those who did.

Since I graduated in 2005, I have been to the funerals of or sent condolences to the families of enough friends and acquaintances who have taken their own lives that I have run out of fingers and toes to count on. I don’t want that number to rise. I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of early death in 36 years on this planet.

Now, before the fans of certain writers who lard on the emotionalism and wield their mental health like a stick round on me, I want to also say this: It is important that people write about mental illness and talk about what they have experienced. As a teenager, the writing of Elizabeth Wurtzel, who died this year, had a profound effect on me and made me realise that misery can creep up on almost anyone.

My issue is the mimsy whimsy, self-help bullshit that can masquerade as truthful reflections on mental ill-health. I want to read things that don’t hide the sinews and blood, the dark many-tentacled monsters that wander the corridors of your brain when that part of you is refusing to work as designed.

It’s easy to write polished lines about how “you’ve got to live” but that doesn’t count for shit when you’re really down in the hole.

Finally, the media and publishing industries tend to focus on depression, which they can just about understand, rather than other less discussed mental health conditions. Not many schizophrenics are being given contracts to write memoirs. It’s much easier for a middle-class reader to understand someone who looks and sounds like them having a breakdown — which is no less valid — than it is for them to get their head around someone who is homeless, rootless, friendless and trapped in a secure institution trying to persuade the white coats that they are well enough to be let out again. That’s not a story that works well next to adverts to Ottolenghi books and ‘wellness’ products.

Talk about your mental health but do it on your terms and at a time that suits you. The media is not your friend when it comes to mental ill-health, it simply knows a good story when it smells one; polished misery sells Sunday supplements.

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