We don’t know what really happens behind closed doors; what it is like inside someone else’s heads; to truly walk in a stranger’s shoes. This is true in all aspects of life – no matter how much reality TV we watch. It is the case when we imagine the lives of the rich and famous; when we fantasise about what we would do with the illusive Euro Millions winnings and if we ever picture how life must be for those who make up the House of Windsor, Britain’s Royal Family.
Imagining being somebody you are not – even just for a few moments – is pure guess work. It is a fools errand. It is a waste of time. But it becomes even more futile when it comes to trying to imagine or to feel someone else’s inner pain; their doubts; anxieties; depressions; low moods; stresses; panics; self loathings. Their state of mind. Their mental health.
No matter how well we believe we can empathise with someone else – how much we believe we can relate to their life and their issues – even if we have experienced something similar ourselves – we are barking up the wrong tree. Everyone is unique. Everyone’s buttons are pushed by different things. Everyone copes with the stuff they encounter differently. Everyone is just themselves.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to help others – to try to understand the pains they may be going through. But the best way to do that is to ask them about it and listen. Truly, deeply, honestly listen. The ratio of ears to mouths we have been assigned should give us a clue as to which is more important – twice as so. Therefore we should strive to be great listeners not great talkers, or broadcasters; pontificators or projectors. And we should avoid – at all costs – the temptation to be judgers.
Enter Toby Young. His Twitter intervention yesterday – aimed at the Duchess of Sussex, whom he called Megan Markle, which was a bad start as that is not her name – showed us what can happen when you combine someone talking openly and vulnerably about their mental health and someone not listening. Worse, he combined not listening with the donning of a black robe and powdered wig and, picking up a gavel, became His Honour Judge Ignorant for 280 characters.
Before I address the main issue raised by his ugly keyboard warrior behaviour, I want to declare some interests.
Firstly, I am not a royalist – not by a long way. I have no affiliation, affection or allegiance to the British Royal Family or any members of it. I am Irish. I am a Scouser. I am a republican who when asked “are you really telling me that would you rather have some elected president instead of The Queen?” I say yes every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I then point them in the direction of Presidents Robinson, McAlesse and Higgins.
Secondly, I care deeply about mental health and – as someone who had a breakdown – spends much of his live now thinking about it, reading about it, trying to work on it, talking about it, hopefully listening (properly) about it. This means I may be a little sensitive to this sort of opinion. Or as I prefer to call it, this sort of totally, unadulterated drivel.
Thirdly, point one above aside, I believe that celebrities – including those “younger royals” to whom the Young tweet was aimed – do us all a good turn by opening up about their mental health and offering some personal disclosure on the things that have caused them trouble and what they have done about it. I wish that it didn’t matter that these folk are high profile figures and that they have influence simply by virtue of them being in the public eye for being rich, famous, attractive, talented or talentless and more besides – but it does.
The irony I fear sadly lost on Mr Young is that the fact that often those high profile people who do speak out on mental health are rich, famous and attractive, makes their disclosures all the more powerful – and helpful to those of us who don’t tick those boxes. The views he expressed yesterday on Twitter are common. They are based on deep prejudice and ignorance. They are grounded in a total misunderstanding of what mental health problems are and what it means to suffer from any form of mental health problem – from occasionally feeling a little down to full-blown minute-by-minute, life-threatening suicidal thoughts.
These views appear to be believe that mental health problems are self-induced and or invented – not a medical condition or something that could strike anyone, cruelly and without warning. These views equate being happy with good mental health and suggest that money, good looks, big houses and private jets should amount to happiness and therefore immune you from the risk of poor mental health. I know. I read that twice too when I wrote it. What utter garbage.
These views feel like something from a bygone age – thankfully. A view that sadly I heard fairly occasionally when I first started to talk openly and publicly about my own mental health problems and issues; “what has he got to be depressed about?” or “he would be depressed if he had my life!”.
The idea that depression can only occur in the absence of all the material/superficial things Toby Young mentioned is as offensive as it is stupid. Anxiety or depression or just feeling a bit blue can hit anyone; any age; any gender; any bank balance; any postcode; any background; any class of airline ticket; any place; any where; any time; any one.
If Toby Young took the time to listen – to really listen – to the world around him, he would find that far from mental health problems being the preserve of the poor – or those of us with faces for radio – but instead in one in three of us; 33% of the population; 20+ million folk in the UK.
If he listened – really listened – to the world around him – he would see that nobody is protected from exposure to mental health problems by virtue of their financial or marital status or whether they live in a palace or a prefab.
He would also find that mental health problems are not just for the Royle Family or their Windsor namesakes but for everyone; Kensington, Liverpool; Kensington, West London. Not Made in Chelsea but made inside our heads; in our shoes; behind our closed doors. Sadly, it has something for everyone. That’s why we all need to know more; to listen more; to be more for those close to us.