Saturday, 26 November 2011

Speaking Up - Interview with Lord Bragg

I wrote this article – an interview with Lord Melvyn Bragg, on the subject of his experiences with depression – more than six years ago and it was published in my local newspaper, the News and Star, in Cumbria, England.

It was written to mark the UN’s World Health Organisation’s World Mental Health Day, which ‘promotes open discussion of mental disorders, and investments in prevention, promotion and treatment services’.

To those outside the UK, Lord Bragg is a very prominent broadcaster and prolific author, arguably best known for presenting The South Bank Show – an arts magazine programme that ran for more than 30 years on British independent television.

He was born in Carlisle – my birthplace, too – in 1939.

He was made a Life Peer in 1998, giving him the title of Lord, which means he sits in the upper house of parliament, The House of Lords (equivalent to the US Senate), which passes our laws after the squabbling of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons (equivalent of the US House of Representatives, but noisier… seriously, it sounds like a herd of sheep have been smuggled in when the chamber is full. They’re a very uncouth bunch of people, at times.)

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading through and – if any of you are suffering right now – it gives you a little light. Depression isn’t the end. Far from it.

The original article appears here.

Speaking Up

Lord Bragg is far from the first person most would associate with having a history of mental health problems.

The phenomenally accomplished author and TV broadcaster suffered bouts of severe depression in his teens and 20s, but stands as testament to the fact that issues with mental health don’t have to stand in the way of success in life.

“I had a fairly severe bout of depression when I was in my mid-teens,” says Melvyn. “I didn’t acknowledge it. I didn’t know what it was, because you didn’t in Wigton in the early fifties, and I don’t think you do now, really.”

Born into an “ordinary family” in 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War Two, Melvyn explains: “Looking back on it, it seems clear that I had serious depression and some kind of breakdown.

“In those days you just got on with it. You couldn’t talk to people; you were ashamed of it and that was one of the biggest problems.

“This sounds strange, but nobody knew about my problem – least of all me. I just knew that something very strange was happening and did what I could to battle through.”

One in ten people suffer from depression at any one time, but about half the sufferers don’t address the problem with their family doctor.

“The thing about mental health, which obviously carries on to this day, is that if people have difficulties they feel very ashamed of themselves.

“I mean, you don’t feel that way if you’ve got a broken ankle or a liver complaint, but most people do feel embarrassed and reluctant to talk about it if they’re depressed.”

Prescriptions of anti-depressants have seen a near-threefold increase in the past 12 years alone, and rates of anxiety and depression have been constantly rising among teenagers for 25 years.

Melvyn says: “This is one of the reasons I’ve become involved with the Mind charity, which I’m national president of.

“I took on the responsibility because I knew something about it, and represent the charity in the House of Lords, as well as carrying out engagements to help raise awareness of mental health issues.”

“At the end of my 20s, I had another bad time, but then I was able to talk to people and that made it so much easier to deal with.

“I still get depressed now,” admits Melvyn, “but I think you have to make a distinction between ‘getting depressed’ and having long-term bouts of serious depression.

“Fortunately, I haven’t been in an actual depression for something in the region of 30 years.”

Celia Richardson, director of communication for the Mental Health Foundation, says: “We don’t talk about our mental health. We share information and advice about the vitamin supplements we take, how we deal with minor ailments, and how we stay in shape.

“But we don’t talk about how we stay well mentally, how we cope with stress, and what keeps us feeling balanced and positive.

“This is one of the reasons people who develop common mental health problems feel isolated and alone. They just don’t realise how many people have felt the same as them.”

To mark World Mental Health Day, the Mental Health Foundation is asking people to talk freely about their mental health. The charity is providing tips on how to look after your mental health and encouraging members of the public to share their own experience and advice as openly as possible throughout the day.

Visitors to the MHF website ( are being asked to take part in the Big Mental Health Conversation, where they will be able to share their thoughts in a live debate.

Ms Richardson says: “There’s a wealth of untapped knowledge out there among ordinary people, about how they try to stave off common mental illnesses like depression, and how they stay well. Fear of the stigma attached to mental illness means people are often reluctant to discuss it.

“But this means we don’t find out from our friends, families and colleagues all sorts of useful coping strategies. It also means we don’t get to talk about our more difficult feelings and get the reassurance we need.”

Talk about your feelings – sharing your feelings with others and being listened to can help enormously.

Ask for help – if you think you may need professional support, see your GP and be clear about how you feel. Think about seeing a counsellor.

Keep active – physical activity is a proven way to keep mentally well. Exercise makes us feel better immediately through the release of uplifting chemicals into our bodies. It can also be a great way to meet people!

Eat well – a balanced diet is essential to maintaining good mental health.

Drink sensibly – even though it makes us feel good in the short term, alcohol is actually a depressant.

Keep in touch with friends and loved ones – close relationships have a huge impact on how we feel on a daily basis so manage them the best way you know how.

In the UK, there are more suicides on Mondays than on any other day of the week.

One in 10 people will have some form of depression at any one time.

By the year 2020, it is estimated that depression will be second only to heart disease as an international disease and disability burden.

About half of all people with depression do not go to their GP.

In 2002-2003, the economic and social cost of mental health problems in England was £77billion.

Among teenagers, rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.

40 per cent of older people living in care homes are depressed.

Approximately two million people of working age in Britain are currently taking psychiatric drugs.

Job applicants with a diagnosis of diabetes are significantly more likely to be offered a position than applicants with a diagnosis of depression, all other factors being equal.

One in ten children aged 5 to 15 experience clinically defined mental health problems.

World Mental Health Day is celebrated every year to raise awareness.


  1. It's true that mental health issues are unaccepted. I find it strange because many mental health disorders are genetic and there is increasing awareness of this fact.

    A study in the US at Cedars-Sinai found that people who suffer major depression have brains where the part of the brain that governs optimism does not function as it would in people who do not suffer from depression. This is why it is hard for depressed people to move forward sometimes.

    I hope we are able to take depression and mental illness out of the closet soon. This is a good article. I like the lifestyle tips because they can make a big difference.

  2. De-stigmatization of problems with emotional well being lies within the commonly used terminology itself. The very words "mental" and "physical" imply an artificial dichotomy(WHO Report 2001) of body and mind. Let's take the "mental" (a word still used pejoratively in school yards) out of "Mental Health". To coin verbage from positive psychology, such as "emotional wellbeing" would help destigmatize....

  3. Maria, you have chosen these statistics and studies to become your life - can you see that?

    You are fighting for the recognition of depression. You are trying to rouse an army against, and at the same time for, your enemy.

  4. Catherine, your comment reads like a big wall of science.

    Imagine some poor 13-year-old kid from the depths of bad company in New York reading this?

    "To coin verbage from positive psychology, such as "emotional wellbeing" would help destigmatize...."

    I'm reserving answering you fully, right now, but your technical appraisal has no use in this world, except to people who understand you.

    To be honest, I'm baffled that you'd even set this down in recordable words.

    Pejoratively? Really?

  5. What's worse here in the US is that therapy is expensive. So, not only do you have to "come out of the closet" but you also have to work out how to find free services and then jump through hoops to actually recieve said services.

  6. Another reason why emotional intelligence should be part of the national curriculum in schools. We're taught about academic subjects, but no-one teaches us how to handle life. Great article!

  7. Very, very true, Jules. I guess schools could say that's an issue for parenting, but many parents don't have a grasp of emotional intelligence and control, either.

  8. Les,

    Thanks for sharing this article. Coincidently I wrote a blog last week where I talked a little bit about my own experience. If anybody's interested here is the link . Treatment in the UK is predominantly drug based although the NHS does deliver therapy and treatment as well. However if you an ongoing issue you will probably have to find a provate therapist.

  9. "Treatment in the UK is predominantly drug based although the NHS does deliver therapy and treatment as well." - John

    There is also a stigma around drug based therapy. While some of our counselling clients utilize this method, we recommend that one attempts to find a counsellor who they can relate with as evidence shows counselling helps with depression and other kinds of mental illness.

  10. @Catherine, I strongly disagree. Coming from a psychology background and from having suffered from many bouts of severe depression putting the label emotional on it is a worse connotation. That seems "less troublesome" if that makes sense. Depression is a medical illness. But it does get better and there is hope. I would like to say to anyone reading this that suffers or knows of anyone suffering, always fight that feeling that it will never get better, that horrible pain inside that feel so physical it throbs. Never give up, do whatever it takes because you are worth it. Only look at the moment, that very second, get through that moment and eventually the moments will get better. Get help, reach out to anyone, and if you do, I PROMISE, the light will start to peek through.
    Les, My biggest struggle in the US, was with other physicians, if they have seen the medications I was on for depression while treating for another medical condition I was pigeon holed as "crazy" or my current medical condition was looked at in a different way. This has started to change, but awareness is the answer and I applaud your article and effort. Thank you!

  11. The beautiful landscape behind this blog draws my attentions astray... I know about depression, I'm working on it and I accept help (starting October. I live with it and love every instant it's not predominant. A friend of depression is inertia, moving my body, physical activity, as difficult as it is to achieve for me, is my friend. Being or hiking in a landscape like the one in the background for example. (Call me Ava)