Stop the stigma of mental illness: Ruby Wax at TEDGlobal 2012

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Ruby Wax

Ruby Wax bounds onto the stage with a beaming smile and a glint in her eye. Then she says firmly, “One in four people have mental illness.” She looks down at the audience mischievously. She counts out. “You, sir, with the weird teeth. It’s you.” She points behind him. “That whole row isn’t right. Hi. Don’t even look at me.”

Wax is here to tell us her story. As she puts it, she’s one of one in four, and while she’d imagined that her nervous breakdown would be the result of some deep Kafkaesque revolution, with Cate Blanchett playing her in the movie version, the reality was rather more pedestrian. Her breakdown took place at her daughter’s sports day, after which she found that she had been institutionalized. When she woke up a month later, she noticed that on the rare occasion her old friends contacted her, they generally concluded by telling her to perk up. “Perk up. Because I didn’t think of that.” She pouts. The audience laughs.

The thing is, this isn’t really a laughing matter. Depression and mental illness may not be visible, but they are real — and they come with a sense of shame built in. Why? Abuse a baby, Wax tells us, and its brain will send out chemicals that are so destructive that the part that tells good from bad won’t grow. If a soldier sees a friend blown up, his brain goes into such high alarm he can’t experience words; he feels the horror over and over again. “So how come when people have mental damage, it’s an act of mental imagination?” Wax asks. “How come every organ gets sick and you get sympathy except for the brain?”

Now is the science part of Wax’s presentation. As such, she dons a white lab coat and brings out her flip chart, adorned with her own daubings (she’s clearly from the Outsider school of art). The good news is that we’ve come a long way since we evolved from one-cell amoeba. But the bad news is that we’re not well equipped for the 21st century. “People saying they’re having a lovely day are more insane than the rest of us,” she says.

Ruby Wax

There’s a reason for this. When ancient man felt threatened by a predator, he would fill up with adrenaline, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. Then he’d defuel and go back to normal. Nowadays, modern man still fills up with chemicals when he feels threatened, “but because we can’t kill traffic wardens or eat estate agents, the fuel stays in our bodies. We’re in a constant state of alarm,” Wax says.

Living in this constant state of emergency is unhelpful. That which once made us safe now makes us insane. Let’s face it: “Your pets are happier than you are,” she says, to huge laughs. “Cats: happy happy happy. Human beings: screwed.”

Yet amidst the colorful drawings and exuberant presentation, we should be clear that Wax is deadly serious. “My point is, if we don’t learn to deal with this it won’t be one in four, it will be four in four who are really going to get ill in the upstairs department,” she concludes. “And while I’m at it, can we stop the stigma? Thank you.”

Photos: James Duncan Davidson