I’ve been on anti-depressants since early 1997. Most of the time I’m okay, but I still have ups and downs – although I haven’t had a lengthy or deep depressive episode for quite a few years now. It’s always lurking in the background, however, and it doesn’t take much for it to rear up and take over.

Many well-known people have spoken about their depression – proving, I guess, that it has no respect for rank, profession or personality. My experience is that people just don’t understand depression. It’s a mental illness, not a mood or temporary feeling. I began talking about it to anyone who asked, and most people seemed to get it.

Comedian Ruby Wax hit the nail right on the head when she wrote in One in four people have a mental illness – let’s get organised, “…depression isn’t about having a bad hair day. In actuality it feels like your old personality has left town and you’ve been replaced by a block of cement; indifferent if you win the lottery or fall off a cliff. It doesn’t care if you’re famous, live in a mud hut or what colour you are; depression just loves everyone.”

Ruby’s article attracted 528 comments. I don’t like reading public comments on articles (often they simply show that the people making the comments are prejudiced and ill-informed) but I did read some of these. A very few were helpful and showed that the writer understood the illness. One wrote, “Depression is not just sadness, or feeling down, or feeling a bit mopey. It is a clinical condition, with its own pathology, in which brain chemicals and habitual thought patterns combine and feed off each other to create a profound and persistent suffering that can be extremely hard to escape.” Spot on! Most of the other comments I read reinforced my view that a lot of people don’t get it. Another comedian, Stephen Fry, last week revealed that he tried to commit suicide last year. Stephen has apparently met his share of people who don’t understand depression. Addressing the issue of suicide, he said: “There is no ‘why’, it’s not the right question. There’s no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn’t take their own life.”

Stephen went on to try to describe bipolar disorder and how difficult it can be to live with. “If unmedicated, there are times when I am so exuberant, so hyper, that I can go three or four nights without sleeping and I’m writing and I’m doing stuff and I’m so grandiose and so full of self-belief that it’s almost impossible to deal with me. I can’t stop speaking, I’m incredible, I go on shopping sprees.” But this can be followed by depressive episodes. As host of QI, Stephen is funny and witty, and always ready with a quick comeback. You’d never know he might be depressed, yet he said, “There are times when I’m doing QI and I’m going, ‘Ha ha, yeah, yeah,’ and inside I’m going ‘I want to fucking die. I … want … to … fucking … die.'” How can someone be in two places at the same time? I don’t know, but I’ve experienced that myself. During depressive episodes I could go to work and function fairly normally, then go home at the end of the day and feel just the way Stephen describes.

A related issue is that people think of physical and mental conditions differently. In this video, Ruby tells how, when she was ill, “I wasn’t sent a lot of cards or flowers… I mean, if I had had a broken leg or I was with child I would have been inundated, but all I got was a couple of phone calls telling me to perk up… perk up… ’cause I didn’t think of that!” Many sufferers of depressive illnesses (me included) will tell you that’s the worst thing to say.

In Australia we’re fortunate to have BeyondBlue, which, since its inception in 2000, has done much to educate the public about depression and related illnesses.