One morning at dawn earlier this year, Sarah Johnson jumped in front of a southbound train at London’s Victoria station. She was a 36-year-old Belgravia lawyer and mother of three small children, according to the Westminster coroner’s report last week.
No one can know Sarah’s exact state of mind, or what troubled her to the point that she took her own life, or what might have saved her.
Though I never met Sarah, at times it feels as if I had. The world she inhabited of hard-working professional mothers was also my world. In 1997, I was a reporter for The Times with two small children at home and a husband who had a demanding job as a junior banker.
Overwhelmed with the conflicting demands of work and family, I was hit, seemingly out of nowhere, by a depressive episode so serious that I went to hospital.
Like Sarah, I felt then as if death would be a favourable alternative to the physical and psychological pain I was experiencing. Unlike Sarah, I was fortunate enough to recover.
Depression is a complicated, terrifying and debilitating illness not easily attributed to any one cause or glib explanations. The Royal College of Psychiatrists lists seven possible triggers on its website.
But in the case of Sarah Johnson, her own parting words and a statement from her psychiatrist, Dr Neil Brener, seem to attribute her desperation to an overwhelming sense of guilt over her performance as a wife and mother.
‘Her main thought was that she had let everyone down and how she had messed everything up for her husband and children,’ Dr Brener said.
Sarah’s story serves to remind us of three things. First that suffering from clinical depression means struggling in the grips of a serious, life-threatening condition, very different from ordinary human unhappiness.
Second, that mental illness doesn’t discriminate — a privileged life is not synonymous with either happiness or a privileged health.
But thirdly, and perhaps most poignantly, Dr Brener’s account reminds us that there are a very specific set of pressures faced almost exclusively by women, and mothers in particular, that may contribute to the fact that women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men.
While women have rightly made huge strides in the workplace, the same is not true in many homes. Domestic responsibilities, by which I don’t just mean childcare and housekeeping but the million tiny acts of kindness, arduousness and remembering that make up life at home are still largely undertaken by women, many of whom balance these obligations with full-time jobs.
I have recovered, and now manage my own depression using an armory of approaches ranging from medication and therapy to poetry and prayer.
Given that women are more vulnerable to this illness, perhaps we need not just more understanding from employers about the pressures women face balancing work and home, but a second revolution in the domestic sphere to match that which has happened in the workplace.
Rachel Kelly’s memoir Black Rainbow about her own battle with depression and how she recovered was published in April last year by Hodder & Stoughton. Now she campaigns to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, speaking at schools, universities and literary festivals. She also runs poetry workshops at her local prison and for mental health charities. Rachel is an ambassador for UK charity SANE and vice president of United Response. Her new book Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness will be published by Short Books in November 2015. For more info on Rachel and her work please visit Rachel-Kelly.net.