Famous, beautiful, successful ... and ready to kill herself
I’LL always remember where I was when Michelle said she’d decided to kill herself. It was last Thursday and we were on the set of Sky News in Osterley, in West London. ‘I’ve got something personal to share with you. It’s the first time I’ve spoken about this publicly because of the stigma attached,’ Michelle Dewberry, a former winner of The Apprentice began, as we recorded The Pledge.
‘Some years ago I took the decision to end my life. It was a decision I took heavily, after years of unhappiness.’
We sat stunned, goggling at our fellow panellist, in her tight bodycon navy dress and stilettos. If this was balls-to-the-wall, we were jaws-to-the-floor. It seemed beyond imagining that this smart, gorgeous young businesswoman of 37, who won The Apprentice in 2006, and published an autobiography called Anything Is Possible, could have contemplated suicide just a few years ago. It wasn’t possible at all. It was impossible.
And it also seemed impossible that we were talking about it on a middle-of-the-road telly gabfest.
OK, it wasn’t quite up there with the other television watersheds that summed up how we were changing as a nation: presenter Gilbert Harding crying when asked about his mother’s death in 1960; Kenneth Tynan saying ‘f***’ in 1965, leading to four motions being tabled in Parliament; Princess Diana admitting to adultery, bulimia, self-harm and depression on Panorama in 1995. But still. Definitely a moment.
As we processed Michelle’s bombshell (there are guidelines when talking about suicide, or even thoughts about suicide, so the debate was short on detail) I had to work out how to respond. There was no time to pause, to wonder whether suicide and/or severe depression were topics to be debated – we’d just covered Squeaker Bercow, Melania Trump, and fake news – on a prime-time cable show. To ask whether this subject should be… entertainment.
Dewbs was saying she’d asked to be sectioned, but was instead placed on a care plan under the supervision of doctors, and was up and down still. And the reason why she ‘shared’ on the show was this.
None of this would have happened – she might not have been sitting there – had she not decided to talk in the first place. As she spoke, I was thinking how her impulse to share is being encouraged by the younger Royals, who are leading from the front when it comes to ending the ‘stigma’ around mental health. Last week, William – sprinting alongside Kate and Harry – said suicide was the biggest killer of men under 40. ‘But there has only ever been silence,’ he said. ‘The silence is killing good people.’ In my head, I was applauding them for being so open, active and natural about something that affects one in four people, on a subject the British have always found embarrassing, shameful and taboo. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the Queen’s first cousins were banged up in an Asylum For Mental Defectives in Surrey. The fact the Princes are spearheading a campaign to normalise mental health, that their father is a patron of the Samaritans, and that Dewbs can tell the world that she felt suicidal is – by any measure – progress.
And when it came time for me to speak, it wasn’t hard to say, on air, that my mother was admitted to a mental hospital when I was seven or so, and my family have never hidden the fact she’d had breakdowns. It was a part of life. But I’m not sure I would have done what Michelle did, in her 6in Louboutins. I would have worried that, if I’d outed myself as a severe depressive on prime time, I would never get a job, a husband, a family – even a mortgage. Everyone would write me off as a nutjob. A brave nutjob, but a nutjob, nonetheless.
How wrong I was – in fact, I am. Michelle has received hundreds of supportive tweets, and 300 emails – and also a few messages from people questioning what a ‘successful and attractive’ (their words, says Dewbs) woman has to be depressed about.
And it is the reaction of these few doubters and deniers that answers my own question, I think.
Mental illness has to be mainstream and it has to go prime time, otherwise people won’t understand that depression doesn’t discriminate – and successful, attractive people like Michelle get it, too.
I NEVER thought anything would endear Diane Abbott to the nation, but smug Brexiteer David Davis has managed it. When he attempted to whisper cheeky remarks in her ear last week (it was an Article 50 thing), she told him to ‘f*** off’. What a time to be alive, eh!
SO BRAVE: Apprentice winner Michelle Dewberry