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Why it's important to be honest about mental health

 Wednesday, 7th November, 2018

Words by Mark Shenton

In two recent interviews, television, stage and recording star Sheridan Smith was brutally and frankly honest about her own struggles with mental health issues -- ones that coincided with her father's diagnosis and subsequent death from cancer, and led her to having a very public breakdown during the West End run of Funny Girl. 

In The Daily Telegraph, she said "I managed to keep it going for a long time but the wheels were coming off, and when I crashed it was a big bang.... That wild girl stuff is drink-fuelled bravado and actually, when I’m on my own, I’m like a little broken sparrow wanting to be put back together.” 

She also spoke of how she ended up there: "It sounds ridiculous but the more successful I got, the more I felt like I had impostor syndrome. Like I’m not as good as they think and I’m going to get found out. Then the panic attacks kicked in and I would party more just to try and drown out the noise and self-doubt." But she doesn't excuse her own bad behaviour that resulted: "I am the one who went mad and was drunk falling out of clubs with different people and on Twitter being an idiot. I’ve done a lot of stupid things." 

In The Guardian, she spoke of her approach to interviews: "Back when I started on TV, they sent me on a course, to teach me how to behave in interviews, like they do with politicians. I’m sat with this guy, I’m in my early 20s. He said, ‘No, you see, you’re answering my questions honestly.’ And I said, ‘But you asked'."

The Guardian journalist pays her the courtesy of asking if she's okay for everything she says to be in print, as there were a couple of times when she's said things that close family members don't know yet. And she replies, "Maybe it’s age. But you start to think, if you own something, how can that hurt? If anything, I should be more honest, because if it helps other people, hearing this, that’s a good thing."

By the same token, I recently interviewed the Broadway and TV actor Patrick Page, who is currently making his London debut starring in the new musical Hadestown at the National Theatre, and he spoke openly about his own struggles with depression. "I am on medication now but I went twenty-five years suffering very badly refusing to take it, until it came to point that they would hospitalise me against my will, unless I did. A lot of actors and artists in general -- writers, singers, painters -- feel that because they need to be in touch with their emotions to do their work, medication will dull them and make them unable to work. I try to reassure people that is not the case. It's not an exact science and may take time to get the right combination to treat your kind of depression -- at least in my case it took 9 months to a year -- but stick with it and you will find the right balance. Now I honestly believe that I act better than I could before. My acting used to be overwrought as my emotions were frequently so close to the surface that I would jump to that rather than play the scene. We really live in first fifty years in history where you don't have to suffer with this."

And I, too, have a long history, since I was a teenager, of suffering regular bouts of depression. My last -- and longest -- bout ran for some 21 months. But I've been proud to have shared my struggles publicly, and also my recovery. In 2013, I wrote a column for The Stage (When the drearies do attack/ and a siege of the sads begins…) in which I publicly outed myself as a sufferer, and said: "There many distressing things about depression in its multiple incarnations, but one of the worst and most isolating is the sense of isolation when the fog of depression descends, as I sometimes characterise it. The world mercilessly continues to go about its business, however you feel, and however you feel about it.... Believe me, I know I’m one of the lucky ones – indeed, one of the luckiest ones alive. Not only am I not starving or homeless, but I’m living in a (relatively) stable democracy, I have a job that I love, a husband I love even more, a great home in London and another in New York and terrific friends. So, what’s not to be happy about? Yet depression, of course, can’t be cured by a simple instruction to “cheer up” or “count your blessings.” Instead, I prefer to turn to musical theatre for inspiration, as I usually do. In Pippin, there's a perfect prescription for a cure that always raises a smile (even if, I hasten to add, I’m not going to act on it, as I’m now happily married!)

When the drearies do attack
And a siege of the sads begins
I just throw these noble shoulders back
And lift these noble chins
Give me a man who is handsome and strong
Someone who’s stalwart and steady
Give me a night that’s romantic and long
And give me a month to get ready

Since I wrote that column, I've discovered something else: the way I use addictive behaviour to ease and numb the pain. And it was in tackling them with the help of a 12-step programme, I also found a way out of depression itself nearly four years ago, after what could have been a professional low point when I was dismissed from a national newspaper. As I wrote in another column (Mark Shenton: My Name is Mark and I'm an addict), "Soon after joining a recovery programme the following summer, and attending daily meetings in New York that Christmas (including on Christmas Day itself), I felt the depression lift.... You may join a 12-step fellowship to address a particular issue, but it wondrously ends up solving things you never anticipated. It is, in fact, a programme for life. Just as theatre shows me other lives, this helps me to live my own. So, as much as I don’t wish depression or a public embarrassment on anyone, sometimes the best of things come out of the worst."