The 'IoS' special report on depression last week prompted Lord Bragg to tell Sophie Goodchild & Jonathan Owen about his own 'mental crash'

For more than 40 years, Melvyn Bragg has been one of Britain's best-known figures in the arts world. Whatever he has turned his hand to, the Labour peer has achieved huge success, from creator of the arts programme The South Bank Show to award-winning novelist.

But for all his glittering achievements, his life has also been punctuated by periods of crushing despair. A "massive onslaught of depression" hit him in his late teens, and then came a mental crash in his late 20s after the suicide of his first wife.

As president of the mental health charity Mind, Lord Bragg has also witnessed at first hand the stigma endured by psychiatric patients, which he says makes it harder "coming out with mental illness than coming out for being gay".

There has been much written this week on the subject of mental illness following Alastair Campbell's account of his own battles with depression in The Independent on Sunday last week. And not all of the responses have been positive. Some columnists have questioned whether depression is a real illness, and others have suggested that it is replacing the bad back as an excuse for malingerers to take days off work.

Lord Bragg dismisses a lot of the negative responses as "ignorance", but says it is important to realise that depression occurs on many different levels.

"In many cases people are disabled for months on end and simply can't cope with working or daily life. But there are levels of it just like there are levels of back pain. Of course people feel down from time to time and they use the word 'depressed' just like people who feel they are quite fond of somebody use the word 'love'. A lot of words in our language are elasticated beyond any core meaning but it doesn't mean there isn't such a thing as depression.

"It can be a deeply serious illness - you just have to go to Highgate mental hospital to see people who are clinically depressed - but it also occurs at different levels. When you say 'depression' you don't have to be sectioned and drugged every day to be the only person who is depressed."

The meaning of words is important to Lord Bragg. Yet as an adolescent growing up in a small market town in Cumbria, he had no word to describe the terrible lows that left him barely able to function as a human being. The young Melvyn inhabited a closed world of post-war austerity where "everything was hidden away" and there was no possibility of confiding his anxieties in anyone.

From being in the top three in his class, Stanley and Ethel Bragg's diligent, bright only child sunk to the bottom three. His performance in sports also suffered as he withdrew into himself, crippled by anxiety. Even situations that once he had handled with ease became overwhelming.

"It was difficult to talk about it because I did not dare tell anybody. But I remember quite clearly I was unable to do the things I wanted to do. It was 1953 in a small town in the north of England - who did I talk to and what did I say? I didn't even have the words 'cracking up' in my possession, although I knew something was very badly wrong but couldn't describe it, even to myself.

"You are quite good at subterfuge [at that age] and ... it was the good old days where you did not talk about anything. My background and such meant that there was nobody I could talk to, would talk to, knew how to talk to.

"Looking back I have a certain affection for that time but in fact it was no good. And it's taken an awful long time for mental illness to be discussed in any way."

Despite the lack of professional help, he did eventually manage to pull through these dark years and went on to win a place at Wadham College, Oxford. Literary success followed swiftly with a publishing deal at the age of 25 for his first novel. But with success came the return of his anxieties in his late 20s.

He is guarded about talking about the catalyst for his second "bad bout" of depression - "It's a bit complicated and a bit personal" - but there is no doubt that his mental collapse was in part connected with the suicide of his wife, the French countess Marie-Elisabeth Roche. She died in 1971, leaving behind not only a devastated Bragg but also their five-year-old daughter.

This time, Lord Bragg, now married to the writer and television producer Cate Haste, with whom he has two children, did seek professional help in the form of psychoanalysis.

"In many ways psychological therapy has been a good help; in other ways it has been a hindrance. My own internal jury is out on that. I think drugs are very useful and very effective for some people, although I never took them - I'm frightened of drugs. There's no magic wand. Sufferers are queuing up at the gates of hell and wanting to know how to get out of there."

For about two years, he was unable to hold down a regular job and instead managed to survive by writing film scripts and then taking part-time work in television.

"If I'd had to do a regular job I would have failed ... They [his bouts of depression] were quite severe in both cases, severe enough to make me massively less effective, deeply unhappy and frightened a lot of the time. But, compared with people I now know, I was nowhere near the lower depths."

Lord Bragg says it is "terrific" that much airtime and many column inches have been devoted to the subject of mental illness in the wake of Mr Campbell's admission, as well as the actor Stephen Fry's account of living with bipolar disorder. He is also unfazed about the backlash that has inevitably followed.

"These two high-profile men 'coming out', to use a crossed metaphor, has had a tremendous effect. When that happens there is a backlash, but it's like ME [myalgic encephalopathy] - people said 'pull yourself together' and it now turns out to be a serious, disabling illness. The overall thing is that this is now discussed. One of the reasons why so many people say it's like backache is because they don't know enough, and it's easy to scoff when you don't know anything."

So how does he define severe depression? A fair guide, he says, is whether or not you can take part in normal life, even to a limited extent. "People who are having severe depression find that extremely difficult, if not impossible." Occasionally, the veteran broadcaster, now 67, says he gets a warning - "a flash in the brain" - which reminds him that, as with a back injury, he has to watch out. But he stresses it is important to remember that people do recover from depression and that bosses should not discriminate against potential employees.

"For so many years Mind has been working away in a very unfashionable area. I think there may be something in the fact people are scared of 'catching' mental illness and in that we want to have people way below us because it makes us feel better.

"I know a lot of people who have been through it and come through it, and that is really important to the 600,000 people out there who are suffering. It isn't like the amputation of a leg; it's like a broken leg - it may take a long time, but it mends."

Responses to the depression special edition

It was extremely encouraging to see the high profile given to depression in the special edition on 8 October. Alastair Campbell's confession, coupled with recent biographical admissions from the likes of Stephen Fry and Neil Lennon, will, I hope, go some way to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness. The editorial in last Sunday's edition showed vision, and I will follow The Independent on Sunday's campaign with interest - and with input.

If mental illness was tackled from an early age and appropriate treatment was widely available on the NHS, then the overall effect would be immeasurable.

Carolyn McKerracher, Edinburgh

Your recent coverage of mental health issues has left me wondering just what progress we have made as a society.

Remember that the 1980s saw the start of a change from the Victorian "asylums" to "care in the community". The numbers of hospital beds for long-stay and short-stay patients have been drastically reduced over the past 25 years. However, care in the community has not been a universal panacea. Many do not receive any support at all. For others the standard of care is of poor quality, and for others again the care is rationed.

David Hodgson, Cambus, Alloa

Mr Campbell's depression at the time of Dr Kelly's death was no doubt regrettable. He can at least count himself fortunate that it was not as severe as the mental state that caused Dr Kelly to cut his wrists and kill himself.

George Wightman, London

At last the anti-depressants vs cognitive therapy debate has widened, thanks to Rufus May ("Britain on the couch", 8 October), beyond looking at how to swap misery for happiness to what depression is made of. Is it a medical condition at all? Or is it a deep long-term sadness that we want a doctor to "magic away", when we should be finding ways to care for this part of ourselves?

Jane Barclay, Exeter, Devon

In the 1970s it took several months for me to get a diagnosis of depression and, even then, my GP was reluctant to tell me. My company's doctor was supportive, but volunteered not to put the illness in his report to the company. I suggest that this is part of the reason why there appears to have been less depression then!

David Bell, Ware, Hertfordshire