It’s mental to comment from a distance about depression

I mentioned on twitter that perhaps the best thing to come out of the royal furore, at least from the perspective of this republican, is that #AbolishTheMonarchy started trending on twitter. But, as the gift that keeps on giving, I noticed that Piers Morgan was trending yesterday. Turns out, he had said some inflammatory things on his ITV breakfast programme and was subsequently sacked.

Of course, Piers Morgan repeatedly and frequently says inflammatory things on his breakfast programme. It is, literally, his entire schtick. But what seems to have cooked his goose is the claim – in response to Meghan Markle admitting that she had countenanced suicide – that he just didn’t believe her. Of course, he couched it in wider terms that he didn’t believe anything she said. But he also cast serious doubt on her mental health, going so far as to suggest that she was probably making it up for attention.

Now, I think there are things for which the Sussexes might legitimately be criticised. There is a sizeable proportion of people who do think much of what is being said is designed to garner as much attention as possible. There is also a case to be made that – whether there are legitimate grievances there (and I think there probably are) – seeking victim status from an otherwise fairly privileged position is at least a bad look that won’t sit well with many. All of that – whether right or not – is a discussion to be had.

Where it seems Morgan crossed a line is in suggesting that Meghan’s claims of contemplating suicide were entirely made up. Now, let’s be clear. It is possible that is the case. Just as it is possible that anyone who makes any claim, even of that sort, might be making it up. But the bottom line is this: Piers Morgan is in absolutely no position to know. What is more, the consequences of his being wrong are extremely serious and damaging. But with little more than an ‘I reckon’ because he’s decided other elements of this farce are merely for show, he has decided the claims of suicidal ideation must be too. Not only (if he is wrong) is that damaging to the person in question, it is damaging to anybody else who may worry about being believed if they dare to mention that they, too, suffer from mental health issues.

Four things bear saying here. First, as I have argued here, nobody should be immune from censure just because they have a mental health issue. Depression does not indemnify you against criticism. My serious depression does not mean you can never call me out on things I put in public. If my mental health is too fragile to take those comments, it is not the people disagreeing with me who need to tread more carefully, it is the one with the mental health problems putting out opinions in public with which others might argue who needs to take care. In the midst of a depressive episode, if criticism is likely to send you on a downward spiral, wisdom suggests not putting that opinion out today. Public opinion will always draw a mix of approval and censure because that is the nature of the beast. We can’t use our fragile mental health as a indemnity clause against criticism. Instead, we have to determine to be careful in what we put out if disagreement is likely to cause us mental anguish. This is not to silence voices with mental health issues, it is to be wise with our own health.

Second, when somebody presents with mental health issues, it is rarely wise to judge from a distance – when you are in no position to know – whether they have anything wrong with them. Aside from most of us not being doctors, even the worst doctors tend to see their patients in person before pronouncing their diagnosis. For those of us with neither the medical training, nor the proximity, to make any sort of judgement on the matter, it is rarely wise to label someone else’s claims of mental struggle as bogus. The risk of being wrong will minimally damage somebody’s fragile mental health further and might, if their claims of suicidal ideation are true, be just the thing that tips them over from thinking about it to trying to carry it out. This is a deeply dangerous game. Even if we happen to be right (and, to be clear, from the position described being right would be a matter of sheer luck from little more than a cynical guess), there will many others who are genuine who hear your disbelief and think twice before admitting anything lest they receive similar short shrift. It is damaging on a much wider scale than we might realise.

Third, we shouldn’t immediately discount the possibility that somebody is using mental health concerns for attention. It is possible that they might be. This is a known phenomenon and anybody who has been around mental health issues more than 5 minutes knows that some do claim it for attention or other less than excellent reasons. I am not saying this is the case with Meghan Markle because I am in no position to judge (see the previous point). Nevertheless, if it is all a façade, let the doctors and those with the requisite proximity be the judges. Those of us seeking to pronounce on things through the prism of media reports from miles away are hardly well placed to make any credible judgements on the matter. It is certainly true that some use mental health for attention – we shouldn’t just discount that possibility out of hand – but it is not for those of us in any position to know to suddenly declare that must be the case here. Again, when we do that, not only do we show our reckless desire to appear knowledgeable without grounds but we also damage others who would seek help, but now will not, for fear that their suffering will be discounted as attention seeking.

Fourth, even those with genuine mental health problems – diagnosed by doctors and affirmed by all those around them – can fall into the trap of trading on it for sympathy. Some of us are very quick to view ourselves as victims. The all-encompassing nature of mental health issues can mean that we almost view ourselves exclusively through that prism. I am a depressed person. It can become part of our very identity. Whilst I recognise that many face stigma because of their mental health issues, in the most part, I have found people are generally sympathetic. And that makes it very easy to see how trading on our victim status can be quite tempting. Interestingly, then, even if someone does appear to be using their mental health issue for attention (and, again, please see the above points on that), it does not rule out the possibility that they nonetheless have a genuine mental health problem. Whilst there may be attention seekers without any real mental health problems claiming that they have one, there are also attention seekers who do have real mental health problems too. These two things are not mutually exclusive (and that is not to ignore those who are neither attention seekers nor mentally ill or the mentally ill who are not attention seekers). Even is Piers Morgan is right about the attention seeking, that doesn’t mean that the thoughts of suicide and the mental distress were made up. It is a hard sell to argue that a celebrity appearing on a highly publicised television interview isn’t seeking some sort of attention. But that doesn’t mean the claims to mental health and suicidal ideation are made up or untrue.

All of that is to say, I think what Piers Morgan said on his programme is deeply damaging and highly dangerous. Without discounting the possibility that he might be right (and, it really is only a possibility), it is clear that he is no position to know. The repercussions of the comments if wrong are not only detrimental and serious for Meghan Markle, but will reverberate to all who admit to mental health struggles. Even if he is right that much of this is attention driven, that of itself is no proof that the mental health claims are untrue. Unless he has solid evidence for saying that particular aspect of the claims are made up (and I’m not aware he provided any), given the high stakes on the matter, I don’t think it unreasonable to expect him to offer a bit more than ‘I reckon’.

When you put it like that, what value is a journalist who merely reckons, from a distance, with no real evidence for what he says? I can go to any pub and find people who will offer me that. Only, in the pub said to a private group of friends, there is no wider damage done. It is just an opinion, based in nothing but hot air, said to few people who are listening. Which, I guess, is all Piers Morgan will now be offering anyone as well. And we can be grateful for that.