On Depression and Suicide

The desperately sad news about Robin Williams today has resulted in a flood of comment on social media. Much of it, inevitably, is foul. Much more, however, is well intentioned but simplistic. Depression, like so many things in life, is complicated. Neat maxims that fit into 140 characters cannot and will not be suitable for all cases.

One thing I’d like to note is that sometimes talking isn’t enough. Heck, I went through several days of being unable to talk. Drugs helped. It may well be that I would have got better without the drugs. I haven’t done a control experiment to find out, and I have no intention of doing so. But I was very grateful for the drugs at the time, and I did get better.

The other important point is that people are not always just depressed. They may well be depressed for a reason. A September 2012 study found that 48% of British trans people had attempted suicide (sample size, 889). A similar study from January this year found that the number for the USA was 41% (sample size, 6,456). Those people were probably depressed (though maybe not clinically so), but that wasn’t all that was wrong.

When trans people attempt suicide it is often because they are facing being homeless and unemployed. It may be because they have been disowned by their family and abandoned by their friends. It may be because they have been bullied and humiliated by social services staff when they asked for help. It may be because they are afraid to leave home because of the harassment they get from their neighbors. And, for example in the case of Lucy Meadows, it may be because of vile things that have been said about them in the national media.

This is why what the BBC is up to at the moment is utterly reprehensible. Last week on Woman’s Hour they gave a lot of air time to a notorious “radical feminist”. Sure they had a trans women on as well for “balance”, but it is hard to get your point across when what your opponent says is full of lies and distortions; and doubly hard when what you say is constantly called into question by suggestions that you are dishonest, dangerously violent and mentally ill.

Last night Newsnight tried to pull a similar ambush. The trans people involved (including Paris Lees) declined to participate once they realized that they were being set up for the modern equivalent of bear baiting. This is now apparently being spun by media “feminists” as “intolerant”, censorship and even “aggression” on behalf of Paris and her fellow intended victim.

So yeah, sometimes people do commit suicide because they are clinically depressed, and they can be helped by drugs and psychiatry. Sometimes, though, they commit suicide because their simple right to exist is constantly under question in the national media, which quickly leads to harassment in daily life. There is no point telling such people that they are wasting their lives, and that things will get better, unless you actually do something to ensure that their lives are likely to get better.

The good news is that things actually have got better. My life, since transition, has been far happier and more successful than I ever expected. Social change has been rapid. Change, however, inevitably brings backlash. If we don’t want trans people to kill themselves, we need the media to stop using them as punch bags for entertainment.