Terence Blacker: Depressing clichés sadly perpetuated

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:36

Whenever a successful woman experiences some kind of career freak-out, the great Having It All debate is re-ignited. Sometimes it is a politician who decides to spend more time with her family who sets the whole thing rolling, sometimes a TV presenter who goes into emotional meltdown.

On this occasion, the respected Daily Mail columnist Allison Pearson has confessed that over the past 18 months she has been waking at 4am with sad, self-destructive thoughts. "Sometimes I think it would be easier not to be," she has told her therapist and her readers. "Not to be dead. I have two children, I can't leave them. But just to stop, you know. To not exist for a while."

So she would be stopping her Daily Mail column. Fortunately – although this fact was strangely not mentioned in the article – she has been recruited by a rival newspaper as a columnist and feature writer.

In the meantime, as is traditional in Having It All stories, the personal is made general. Pearson believes she is not alone. She had been "enrolled in the growing army of depressed middle-aged women. Let's call us The Blues Sisters. Unofficial logo: Edvard Munch's The Scream." The assumption here, so widespread that it has become a widely-accepted mental cliché, is that there is something uniquely troubled and tragic about working women with families.

By a stroke of unlucky timing, those with real knowledge of stress-related mental health problems have recently suggested that this view is, to put it politely, flawed. In spite of the statistics, "in reality men are just as likely to experience depression, but are far less likely to seek help, be diagnosed and seek treatment," according to Paul Farmer, the chief executive of the mental health charity Mind.

Social pressure on men to show strength at all times is one factor. When they do, the diagnostic criteria used to assess levels of depression are geared towards women. Three-quarters of all suicides are male. The figures, in other words, are allowing a myth of female vulnerability to pass itself off as fact. The view from Mind has been independently supported by the Men's Health Forum and by a spokesman for the Royal College of General Practitioners.

Depression is a devastatingly grim experience, and anyone who suffers from it deserves the greatest sympathy and help. It is not, though, something from which the Blues Sisters suffer in particular. Men simply talk – and write – about it rather less.

Can the McCanns be thinking straight?

Three years have passed since the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and her parents are determined that the search for her should not slip out of the world's headlines. To keep the story alive, they have just released a moody video, complete with a musical soundtrack, which includes a photograph of the three-year-old wearing make-up and gazing into the camera. It is that image which, predictably, has featured in the media,

It seems a bizarre and unsettling development. Clearly, Kate and Gerry McCann have been living through a nightmare of unimaginable horror and perhaps, even after three years, they are not thinking straight. If so, someone should surely have pointed out to them that, in a case over which paedophilia casts an obvious shadow, it looks downright weird when a photograph which has the effect of sexualising the missing child becomes part of the campaign to find her.

Obviously, the make-up game and the photograph were innocent at the time but, when the private picture is released into the public domain in these circumstances, something altogether nastier kicks in.

What was the point of this exercise, apart from getting more news coverage? At a time when there is justified concern over Primark selling Little Miss Naughty padded bras for eight-year-olds and allegations that Playboy brands are being aimed at the primary school market, the circulation of this can only feed prurience of the very worst kind.

Maybe it was a misjudgement, but it confirms a niggling sense that the McCanns' publicity–at-all-costs campaign has seriously lost its way.

Your country needs you – to lose weight

If Britain is, as we've been told, sitting on an obesity time problem, then America's fat problem is acquiring nuclear status. An estimated one in three young Americans are now said to be obese.

When our own Jamie Oliver tried to point out that for American schools to give children deep-fried pizza for breakfast was not a good idea, there was great affront. One enraged shock-jock caused our boy to blub with frustration on camera.

Now the American fat bomb has taken on a security aspect. Two former chairmen of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton, have issued a stark public warning. More than a quarter of Americans are now too fat to fight, they say. Such is the threat to the future defence of the nation that, with no less than 130 retired generals, admirals and military leaders, they are calling on Congress to pass child nutrition legislation. In 1946, a law was passed to improve the quality of school food because, it was thought, raising puny weaklings threatens national security. Now the pendulum has swung the other way.

There was a time, a few decades back, when this solemn announcement from the ranks of lantern-jawed crew-cuts would have had draft-dodgers and peaceniks putting on the pounds as an act of protest and waddling down the streets in TOO FAT TO FIGHT t-shirts. In these less subversive, more patriotic days, the call to diet on behalf of your country might just possibly work.

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