The Books Interview Lewis Wolpert: Finding the exit from hell

Lewis Wolpert's depression brought more pain than his wife's death. Julie Wheelwright asks why
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Lewis Wolpert, A Biography

Born in South Africa in 1929, Lewis Wolpert trained as an engineer and once had a job with the Israel Planning Department. He then became a cell biologist in London. He is chairman of the Royal Society's Committee for the Public Understanding of Science and was awarded the CBE in 1990. His books include A Passion for Science, The Triumph of the Embryo and, with Alison Richards, The Unnatural Nature of Science. The scientific research of his own that brought public attention followed a fertilised egg from embryo to new-born infant. He also presents many radio programmes on science. His second wife, the novelist Jill Neville, died in 1997.

shire with his wife and daughter.

A psychiatrist friend of mine described meeting a former patient in a lobby of the National Theatre. Since the man had ended his treatment, my friend made his way through the crush to enquire how he was. But although the psychiatrist had seen his patient through a terrifying bout of mental illness, the man felt unable to acknowledge him. When he saw the doctor coming, he turned and melted into the crowd. Despite its prevalence, sufferers from mental illness still bear stigmata of weakness and shame.

The facts, however, are indisputable: depression remains a hidden seam of misery within our society. The charity SANE fields 1,000 calls per week, the majority from people with clinical depression. One person in five suffers from depression at some point in their lives. In the UK, more than 5,000 people commit suicide every year; more than 100,000 make a serious attempt. The World Health Organisation predicts that, by 2020, depression will top the global chart as the most pervasive serious illness, more pervasive than either heart disease or cancer.

Lewis Wolpert, biology professor at University College, London, has stepped out of the closet to describe his own slide into depression and to provide sufferers with a deeper understanding of the illness. Malignant Sadness: the anatomy of depression (Faber, pounds 9.99), which accompanies a BBC2 series, chronicles the intense despair that lead him to an obsession with suicide and finally to find redemption in a psychiatric ward. The book is striking in its clarity about the mind's capacity to swing out of control and in our growing understanding that such events may be triggered by neurochemicals rather than simple human tragedy.

Wolpert argues that unless you have suffered depression, you cannot begin to imagine its torture. In the hierarchy of pain, he believes his illness was worse than witnessing in 1997 the death from breast cancer of his beloved second wife, Jill Neville, the Australian writer. "I am ashamed to admit that my depression felt worse than her death," he writes, "but it is true. I was in a state that bears no resemblance to anything I had experienced before."

There is a delicious irony in meeting Professor Wolpert to discuss the darkest moments of his depression. Deemed the "lord high contradictory" by Jill Neville, he rocks with an intellectual passion, is unafraid to admit his frailties and appears to have an unquenchable appetite for life. Within seconds of meeting we have launched into a conversation about cycling, since I have appeared with my helmet tucked under my arm, and he is a committed urban cyclist. We squeeze into his closet-sized office, piled high with books, papers and coffee cups, to sit on dilapidated chairs. The February sun streaks through grimy windows; all is right with the world.

Then Wolpert delves back into the time when doubt, anxiety and despair enfolded him. It was before Jill became ill: they had a happy marriage, he had a great job and was looking forward to travelling to his former home in South Africa. But when he developed atrial fibrilation (a common and non-threatening arrythmia of the heart), he began to fantasise about falling ill and dying in a remote place. "I began to feel very weird. I can describe it no other way."

Wolpert realised he was ill when he became obsessed with thoughts about suicide, which grew more insistent over several weeks. He stopped functioning, shedding all the activities that gave him intense pleasure, such as working, writing and cycling. His wife was convinced the trip to South Africa (where his father was murdered 20 years before), along with his impending retirement, had fuelled the depression.

Then suddenly, he was unable to sleep and began to take tranquilisers. "It took only a few weeks before I had descended into depression," he says, the furrows increasing in his usually animated face. "I was suicidal, I thought I was going mad."

His waking moments were consumed with planning his exit, as he hoarded his heart pills and sleeping tablets. "My wife was very angry and thought that my behaviour was totally unfair to her and to the children. So she told me that if I still felt the same in a year's time, she would help me commit suicide." When I ask if he thought she meant it, he insists, as tears well up in his eyes, "yes, absolutely".

"Jill never understood my depression, it was a total mystery to her." But her breaking-point with Wolpert was the catalyst for him to seek professional help, in the psycho-geriatric ward at the Royal Free Hospital in north London. There he began his journey back to mental health. After a course of anti-depressants and many sessions of cognitive therapy, his fractured sense of self began to reintegrate. Another irony surfaces. Despite Jill Neville's steady physical decline, Wolpert says that she never became depressed. There was rage and sadness, but never the descent into that black pit of utter despair.

Four years after the gloom lifted, Wolpert's book reflects his ability to take a forensic approach to his experience. A research scientist, he has assembled the latest findings on depression while providing an historical and social context for them. By dissecting our social history, he reveals our fears and confusion, and why we are unable to shake off a sense of shame.

"Even I haven't escaped the stigma," he admits. "I was recently giving a big lecture in Geneva and this friend of mine kept asking, `why do you think your depression was biological?' Even I insist mine was triggered by a drug that I was taking for my heart and, of course, it had no psychological base."

But Malignant Sadness suggests a complex interplay between the brain and the psyche. This provides the book's most fascinating insights. Studies of identical twins provide, for example, strong evidence for a genetic component in depression, suggesting its heritability at more than 50 per cent. Almost a quarter of those with depression have close relatives who have also suffered from a depressive illness. There is also the mystery of why, in 40 per cent of depressions, an individual improves with little or no intervention at all.

There is no scientific formula for mental health, just as there are few clues to what can turn grief into full-blown clinical depression. "Apart from bereavement, it is not always easy to identify significant life events in a depressed patient's life," he writes. "Memory has a variable reliability, and there may well be a distortion of events, for example, the overemphasising of an event in order to make the depression more understandable." So while many schools of psychotherapy encourage patients to script a meaningful narrative of their history, the depressive may also need help to right a chemical imbalance.

"We want and need to know how emotions and thinking can affect the chemistry of the brain and how the chemistry of the brain affects our thinking and feeling," writes Wolpert. He argues that drugs and the talking cure each have their place. However, there are people who can overcome a depression simply through a limited number of psychotherapeutic sessions. So why, he asks, are NHS patients so readily offered drugs and so rarely therapy? The answer comes down to cost. There are frightening suggestions emanating from the US that the benefits of psychotherapy are being denigrated simply because insurance companies consider it too expensive.

Our best hope for finding a cure for depression might lie in biological research, but Wolpert doesn't dismiss the importance of raising social awareness. Now that he has so boldly gone public about his illness, he has discovered colleagues and even close friends who have also struggled to survive the malignant sadness. His realises they all share a relief at escaping from this living hell and the haunting fear that it may return. "It is still miraculous that I am back to normal. I feel like Lazarus risen from the dead and given a second chance."

Lewis Wolpert's series "A Living Hell" starts on BBC2 on Wednesday 3 March.