Sarah Sands: Walking, not whining, relieves the blues, Ruby

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The Independent Online

Two male university students were Skypeing each other. They had been close friends at school and had about seven months of news to catch up on. After a delighted drawn-out "Hey", they swapped views on Chelsea's line-up and performance. They joked about each other's sporting prowess. Then, sated by conversation, they signed off. Afterwards, one of them wondered rhetorically if he should have wished his pal a happy birthday.

Ruby Wax says in her new show Losing It, at the Menier Chocolate Factory in south London, "I think we have a human problem and it's about relationships." I fear she has lost half of humankind already. Not since The Vagina Monologues has a show been so intimidating to men. Ruby is asking that we nail depression right here, right now, by talking about it.

Predominantly male theatre critics wonder nervously if is this is entertainment. If a woman talks about how she feels for an hour or so and then invites the audience to do the same, a man may just pack his bags and head for Libya. This does not mean that men are shallow. Rory Kinnear's National Theatre Hamlet, now on tour, is revealing about depression but seeks to dramatise rather than "normalise" it. Wax, like Tracey Emin, attracts a female following that regards intimate revelation as courageous. Both would be intimidating were it not for their vulnerability. However, I know men, and some women, who regard this vulnerability as intimidating. A male don told me that his male undergraduates were in constant fear of women bursting into tears.

In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Donmar Warehouse in London, the fat boy is outwardly boastful while confiding his secret fear of failure. His female rival is outwardly diffident and inwardly competitive. Guess who wins? Yet the exorcising of fear through confession may not work for either sex.

I understand that Ruby Wax is acting for the common good by removing the stigma from depression. It is certainly a good thing if she can raise a laugh from fellow sufferers. But I have observed depression at proximity, and one of the worst things about it is the self-absorbed paralysis. This is what is resolutely abnormal about it. It destroys natural curiosity, empathy and pleasure in environment and other people. Can you imagine being emotionally indifferent to the first daffodils of spring or to the happiness of your loved ones? I have also seen cognitive therapy fail, because there are only so many times you can retread the mind's closed circle.

People suffering from depression require infinite patience and kindness, but only drugs seem to be a proven solution, and those are not without side effects. A glorious sign of mental health is engagement with the rest of the world. Does more discussion of how it feels to be depressed inspire the victim look outwards?

Wax says that mental illness is no different from physical illness and should not be differently perceived. Yet there is a vital difference: depression affects personality and identity, which is why it is so particularly hard on those closest to you. Men may have the right instincts about the Ruby Wax show. As George Eliot urged, enlightenment means looking out through windows, rather than peering into mirrors.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'