The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that, by 2030, more people will suffer from depression than any other health problem.
About 50% of people with mental health issues will have experienced an episode, such as a chronic bout of depression by the time they are 14.
According to the South African Stress and Health study, one-third of South Africans suffer some form of mental illness during their lifetime. Globally, according to the WHO, 15% of people over 60 currently have a mental disorder such as depression.
With this in mind, w&h spoke to writer and comedienne, Ruby Wax about manipulating the mind – and what makes her feel grounded.
Ruby suffers from depression
Ruby Wax has a glittering CV: she’s interviewed everyone from Helen Mirren to Donald Trump for her TV series, has written bestselling books, and was the script editor for Absolutely Fabulous. A long-term sufferer of depression and bipolar disorder, Ruby earned her masters in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in 2010. Her latest book, A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled, is the follow-up to Sane New World, which explained neuroscience and mental illness clearly and wittily. Originally from Illinois, Wax arrived in Britain in 1977. She lives in London with her husband Ed Bye, and has two daughters and a son.
More on her journey
“Psychology has always interested me – when I was 12 I stole a library book called This is Mental Illness that I’ve never returned. I started a degree in psychology at university but dropped out. Then I left for England – I was trying to get away from my parents and thought I’d only be there a while – and against the odds got into acting school. I knew I’d go back to studying the brain – for self-healing and helping others.
Growing up, I always felt freakish and lonely. Unless I’m with a close friend, I feel pretty alien. It doesn’t get in the way of my life so much now, but it would be nicer to feel more connected. When people say “This is who I am” I feel safer.
I’m pretty sure my mom had OCD, but never received help. She had a fear of dust, for instance, so she would be crawling behind me in the house with a sponge in each hand and one stuck to each knee. Everything in our home was wrapped in plastic. I didn’t know it was crazy; as an only child, I assumed it was normal.
Both of my parents fled Austria and the Nazis in 1939. They brought the war with them into our home, and I grew up in emergency circumstances. The sheer drive that got me into the Royal Shakespeare Company – I really wasn’t a good actress, but I went at it full-throttle – is one of the reasons I’m mad. But it’s helped me to survive.
I had postnatal depression after the birth of my youngest child. That’s when I realised I needed help. None of my children knew I was having problems, as my husband protected them. Because of my work, I could pretend I was off doing TV when really I was in a clinic. I told them the truth when they were 16. I married a normal person who has ensured that my kids are also normal.
I’m still on antidepressants – although, one day, I might come off them. I’m at my happiest in Cape Town with my family. I have a place there and I love it – the sun always shines. I’d like to have sunshine in London, but I’m in the wrong country for that!”
The benefits of mindfulness
Ruby believes mindfulness changed her life. But it’s a daily practise. She says, “This idea that you can change the way you think is relatively new. Everyone talks about the brain, but it’s only recently that people started talking about the mind. It’s the mind that changes the brain’s neuroplasticity – its ability to reorganise itself. It’s like learning to play the piano – your fingers haven’t memorised the notes; it’s your mind. It’s the same with focus. You can manipulate your mind to choose where you focus your attention and remain present. This is what mindfulness does.
I discovered mindfulness 10 years ago and was initially dubious. I’d already tried so many ways to control my depression that hadn’t worked. But the evidence that mindfulness works can be picked up on a brain scanner on someone who’s only done it for a few days.
The key is honing in on one of your senses. It’s having a coffee and noticing the taste or being in the shower and noticing the water. But you can’t do it once and say ‘That didn’t work’. It’s like doing one sit-up and expecting results.”
Dealing with anxiety is a daily battle
Ruby also isn’t a stranger to anxiety. “Anxiety isn’t new. What is new is that we have to deal with more anxiety-related issues. Let’s say you’re in a war zone and your cortisol – your ‘stress hormone’ – keeps bubbling away. It’s saving your life. But in day-to-day life, checking e-mails and multitasking might be slowly killing you. This is why we feel frazzled.
There’s still such a stigma surrounding mental issues. The brain is an organ and sometimes it breaks down. If you broke your arm, people wouldn’t react in the same way. I’ve spoken to women who’ve had depression and cancer, and they say depression was harder to deal with – and that’s partly down to the stigma.
Being honest and talking about how you feel is what binds humanity together. I discovered this when I did the book tours for Sane New World and A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. We asked audiences if they wanted to share their thoughts, and they talked non-stop.”