The outpouring of emotion following Princess Diana's death does not represent true grief, argues Oliver James. Rather, it lays bare the neediness and unhappiness of many people in modern Britain
The nation is not in mourning for Diana. Mourning is the cycle of anger, sadness and emptiness that evolved millions of years ago as a mechanism for coping with loss. It usually lasts about a year and is of an intensity and duration that far exceeds what most of us feel about her death.

Members of the public are constantly telling TV reporters and journalists that the death feels to them "exactly like when a relative dies" but that is simply not accurate.

The way Prince William feels today is of a different order of magnitude. Each morning he wakes and then he remembers, with a dreadful sinking feeling and perhaps with a cry of rage: she is no more. I do not believe it is like that for the rest of us. But if "The Nation Mourns" is an incorrect headline, it is true to say that something very extreme is going on at the moment which does require explaining.

The unexpectedness and violence of the death made it more shocking. It is also true that we have been forced by endlessly repeated pictures and words to relive it. We use our imaginations to paint in the details of what it would be like to be feeling in love, pleasantly watered and fed at the Ritz one moment, and smashing into a wall at 120 mph the next.

Of course she was a woman of remarkable glamour and seems to have had an unusual capacity to emotionally touch those she did meet.

But be this as it may, virtually all the people queuing to write in the books of remembrance or to place flowers at venues all over the country have never met her.

Feelings of shock and regret that she should no longer be with us and sympathy for her relatives would be appropriate. But to become convinced that they have lost a friend or relative seems out of place.

The starting point must be that they are emotionally attached to "Diana": they feel affection and concern for her. But since they have never met this woman it is a one-way relationship with a set of images and words that they have experienced on television and in print. Unlike in a real relationship, this person was never there in the flesh and she had no opportunity to communicate with them personally.

That this is possible is a tribute to the effectiveness and skill of modern media in persuading us to suspend our disbelief - to experience a representation of a person as so real that we feel the same way about them as people with whom we have actually communicated. But it may also suggest that the boundaries between reality and fantasy are becoming seriously blurred.

The death of a star in a soap opera or in a feature film may, in extremis, cause us to cry but we know it is a fiction and we do not go into mourning. The real death of the actor who played that part might trigger widespread mourning-like symptoms (James Dean, River Phoenix).

But no plot development in the virtual-media world has led to anything like this reaction. I do not think that for the most affected that "Diana" was any more real than Vera Duckworth from ITV's Coronation Street. But if the scriptwriters were to kill Vera off, the reaction would not be the same. What marked out Diana?

Undoubtedly her beauty, but many public figures are as beautiful. Nor was it merely a question of the fact that she was a lead character in the royal soap - none of the other royals would get such a reaction.

The key was the way that that the agonies of her particular plotline mirrored the real suffering of the populace, particularly women and young people - and not just in Britain but throughout the developed world. Despite being richer today compared with 1950, we are much unhappier. A 25-year- old is three to 10 times more likely to be depressed. Diana's depression was a famous fact about her; she was treated with therapy and Prozac. She also made "plea for help" suicide attempts.

Likewise, there is an epidemic of compulsions today, including shopaholia (Diana had 500 ballgowns when she died) and bulimia (an acknowledged ailment of hers). Along with alcoholism, illegal substance abuse and gambling, these have mushroomed as attempts to seek solace for depressed mood and irritability. On top of this, Diana was a divorcee from a broken home.

Far from concealing these problems, she went to tremendous lengths to convey their precise nature through Andrew Morton's (effectively authorised) biography Diana: Her True Story. When this was not enough, she put herself forward on television and spelt out her misery and her view of its causes in her own words.

The result was that people who suffered from problems similar to Diana's identified with her. If this theory is correct, women will be more moved by her death than men because all her problems were more common among women: twice as many women as men are depressed, three times as many attempt suicide (although men actually kill themselves four times more often than women) and bulimia is primarily a female problem. In three-quarters of divorces, like Diana, it is the woman who seeks it.

There are a number of other features of Britain today that may have contributed to the overreaction to her death, although none are as potent as her iconic representation of our depressive and compulsive state.

For the many excluded or stigmatised groups, such as blacks, gays and the underclass, she represented one in the eye for the Establishment. By emoting so publicly, they are showing sympathy for her criticism that the royals were cold and did not hug each other.

There is also a desire to be part of something, to share some emotion and for it to be real. Congregating in public places and experiencing collective ritual compensates for the atomisation of modern society.

For all these groups - the depressed, the angry and the compulsive - most of them struggling under difficult circumstances and with painful emotions, the longing for an idealised beautiful Madonna figure is archetypal.

But above all, the scale of the reaction is caused by a massive undercurrent of misery that afflicts women throughout the developed world today and for which Diana's death is a conduit.