It is easy to be sniffy about celebrity culture. To be dismissive that we live in the age of OK magazine, jungles, strictly, housewives of various places and The Kardashians. It is easy to take comfort in the superiority we can sometimes feel about never picking up a tabloid newspaper, glossy magazine or even knowing what channel number E Entertainment is on our TV. But like all things in life, nothing is that simple. These black and white views don’t fit in our multicoloured and HD world. This week, we got a vivid wake up call.
Rio Ferdinand took part in an extraordinary television documentary discussing his life and that of his three children following the death of his 34 year old wife from cancer. It was one of those programmes that reminds you why television is so powerful and at times so brutally, soul bearingly, incredible. There was no place for Rio Ferdinand to hide from his grief, from his pain, from his agony. There was no place in our house for Mrs J and I to hide our tears as we watched. It was truly breathtaking. Hard to watch but impossible to turn away.
Beyond the compelling story and the human interest we can take in the life of this family and thousands of families like it, decimated by their loss, it provided a perfect platform to explore the issues of depression, especially for young men. It cannot be said enough often that the biggest killer of men under 40 in the UK is suicide. It is the silent killer in our midst and any little thing we can do to help remove the stigma of talking about our feelings, our worries, our thoughts, our pains, is a little thing that can make a massive difference to so many lives; so many families.
This programme – Being Mum and Dad – was a celebrity – a high profile, highly paid former footballer, TV star, fashion icon and fashion designer – using his fame to talk about an issue which is eating away at millions every day. I don’t own a Five hat but if I did I would have taken it off to show my respect to Rio, because he was reaching out in a way that few others in our society can.
Whether we like it or not, and I try to like very little associated with Manchester United(!), Rio Ferdinand, with his 7.7m Twitter followers and his instant name and image recognition, can have more impact on more people with 60 minutes of TV and some social media chat about the programme than most of the rest of us added together in a lifetime. It was the power of celebrity and the technology we all use being put to work for the health and wellbeing of the nation, and it was a moving and beautiful thing.
The same is true today of Princes William and Harry and their work with The Duchess of Cambridge (another association – this time with the outdated monarchy – that I try to avoid) on their ‘Heads Together’ initiative – another outstanding charitable effort to get people talking about mental health. They have launched today a series of videos again drawing on the power and reach of celebrities who have spoken about their own anxiety and depression to encourage others to speak out too. They have a simple message; talk to someone. Talk to anyone. But don’t suffer alone. The powerful testimony of Stephen Manderson, aka the rapper and songwriter Professor Green, on this morning’s Today programme caught this message perfectly as he reflected on his own life and the suicide of his father.
One of the most encouraging trends in recent years is people’s increasing willingness to start to have those difficult conversations – conversations that for other generations would have been mostly unthinkable. For my parents’s generation and beyond, they wouldn’t have gone there – they didn’t want to talk about their feelings – they just got on with it, regardless of the cost to them and others. That legacy – that corrosive, sad legacy has taken a long time to start to undo, but at last things are changing.
I know from my own experience of my life and that of many that I know and love, talking about how you feel when things are tough is so important and can make such a difference. Hopefully the Rios and Royals of this world can help others feel confident enough to have that conversation; to say the words that have been rattling around inside for years but were afraid to come out.
One conversation will not put an end to the misery of depression and suicide for so many but it is a start. The person who moves mountains begins by carrying away small stones. Watching Rio and his family writing down memories of the mum and wife they had lost and placing them in a jar the other night was one of the most moving things I have ever seen.
They started to move their small stones. I hope many others who were watching will now follow.