I’m not going to criticise Ruth Davidson for speaking publicly about her struggles with mental health issues when she was younger. There was, and is, a veritable epidemic of mental health problems, of depression, of low self-esteem, of self-harm, of self-medication on drugs and alcohol, and of suicidal thoughts, especially amongst young people, and especially young LGBT people. It’s not new. It’s been an issue for a very long time. All that has changed is the willingness of people to speak about their experiences in public.
I too experienced something similar when I was younger. Realising that you were gay in the 1970s when you are from a Catholic family in a working class community in the East End of Glasgow and going to school at a comprehensive in Coatbridge was no bundle of laughs. I used to cry myself to sleep at night, terrified that anyone would discover my awful secret. That I was one of “them”. I would wish fervently that it would all go away. I thought about suicide, about running away and disappearing. I knew that I’d get no support from the people that you’re told to take your problems to as a young person, my parents or my teachers. Or, laughably, the priest. They were the last people I wanted to tell.
Round about the time I realised I was gay, a couple of older boys in my school were caught kissing under the stairs in a quiet corner of the school. They were disappeared, whisked off somewhere to be “looked after”, and we were forbidden to mention them. I lived with the terror that someone would find out that I was just the same as those boys, and I too would be disappeared. All around me society told me that I was a sick individual, a pervert, doomed to lonely and unfulfilled life, while I swam in a soup of insults and slurs and verbal abuse directed against a community that none of those uttering those words knew I was a part of. So you lied about yourself in order to survive, and then by lying you came to doubt everything about yourself, because no one who knew you knew the real you, they only knew the lie. Eventually I coped, or rather didn’t cope, with my problems by self-medicating on drugs.
It took a long time to climb out of that pit of despair, but I still struggle with feelings of low self-esteem and self-doubt. I still feel the tide of depression lapping against the far shores of my consciousness and have to work consciously to keep it at bay. I still struggle to see any value or worth in what I do. The struggle against depression is a personal battle that people must fight every single day, and even though I have not suffered from depression for many years, that sharp edge is still there, that little voice of self-doubt is never entirely still.
So I get Ruth Davidson, in that respect at least. When you suffer from these feelings, being a public figure is terrifying. You can’t hide. I imagine that she suffered from similar experiences, that she still has that wee voice in her head. So I empathise with Ruth’s experience, and I am glad that she spoke about it in public, because by doing so she has made it a little bit easier for others who are experiencing similar issues to speak out and reach for help.
The lesson I learned from that painful early experience wasn’t a lesson just about me and about my need to change my own life, to empower myself. It was also a lesson in empathy. It taught me that there is something below the surface with any individual, that they may have struggles and difficulties that they strive to hide. It taught me that you should always empathise with those who are struggling because it could so easily have been you. It taught me that you must refrain from rushing to judgement when you see a person making what on the surface may seem to be poor life choices, because you don’t know what is driving them to it.
But my experience taught me something else. It taught me that depression and mental health issues are often the product of external events, and that’s where I take issue with Ruth. She has a pull yourself up by your own bootstraps approach to depression. It might have worked for her, but she can’t assume that it’s going to work for everyone, and she can’t overlook the role that wider society has to play in the creation of individual issues of mental health.
Just as you can’t overlook how societal expectations about – say – women’s bodies or the social role of men drive many young people into the depths of despair, Ruth can’t overlook how the actions of her own government have driven so many hundreds of thousands of people to depression and desperation, and beyond. To me at least, she appears to suffer from a stark lack of empathy for the victims of Conservative policies, for the women victimised by the rape clause, for the disabled people whose mobility and life chances are severely curtailed by UK government cuts, for the hundreds of thousands of students starting adult life saddled by debt, the families living in poverty for whom getting food on the table is an everyday triumph, for all those who struggle in low paid work who will never be able to enjoy a secure home of their own, for the elderly woman left standing in the rain at the bus stop because public transport is deprived of investment.
The real lesson that my experience of depression taught me wasn’t just that I had to make changes within myself in order to recover, it’s that we also need to make changes to society. No one exists as an island. It’s not enough just to change yourself, you have to change the world too. I am an agent in making myself better, but I have to be an agent in making society better as well.
It’s all very well for a politician to speak in a soft soap interview about their early struggles with mental health issues, but when that same politician represents a party which is taking an axe to mental health services in England, there are serious questions to ask which were not asked. When that party is squeezing the Scottish budget and threatening service provision in Scotland, there are serious questions to ask which were not asked.
It’s all very well for a politician to speak in public about personal issues, but there are serious questions to ask of a media which colludes in avoiding asking that same politician about some other important issues surrounding her party, issues about Dark Money, issues about homophobia, sectarianism, racism or misogyny amongst politicians who are theoretically answerable to her. Politicians who by espousing these attitudes are creating depression and low self esteem in others.
That’s what upsets people about Ruth Davidson. She is the politician as a personality, and not the politician as a proponent of policy or principle. What upsets people is when she appears on what is supposed to be an incisive political programme, and Andrew Marr acts like Dr Phil. If we want to tackle issues of mental health, we need to change society. A media which allows politicians to act like media personalities from a baking show and shields them from hard questions only makes that harder to achieve.
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