Ruby Wax: poster girl for mental health

Ruby Wax rose to fame making people laugh, but off-stage she spent years battling depression. Now, with a newly acquired master’s degree, she tells Nicola Slawson about her mission to get the topic of mental illness into the limelight

Ruby Wax might have been missing from our TV screens for the past few years, but her comic timing and stage presence remain faultless. Here, in front of a thoroughly engaged audience, she’s just cracked a joke and everyone in the crowd is laughing loudly, hanging on her every word, waiting for the next punchline. But this isn’t a West End comedy venue, and they’ve not come to watch her do stand-up; this is London’s School of Life, and they’re here to listen to her talk about madness.

Ruby Wax, who made a name for herself as script editor of Absolutely Fabulous and later on her own show Ruby Wax meets…, has just graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in the world: Oxford. She now holds a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

Even she admits that she can’t quite believe it, but when she spoke to me after her talk, she could barely hide her pride as she described her graduation ceremony: “It was the ‘fanciest’, happiest day of my life,” she says.

But how did she go from TV star to Oxford grad? “Well, life is in chapters,” she explains. “Suddenly, your mojo, you lose that.”

Wax has suffered from depressive episodes for most of her life, and they became increasingly worse after the birth of her youngest daughter in 1993. After several spells in The Priory, she wrote a comedy show in 2011 about her experiences and took it on tour to mental health facilities. She soon realised how widespread mental illness is, and later, when touring more traditional venues, she began to think about how even those who considered themselves to be ‘normal’ had difficulties.

“It wasn’t just the one in four who had a problem. It was the four in four”

“It wasn’t just the one in four who had a problem. It was the four in four. The people who were ‘normal’ asked the same questions as the other people. We all have critical voices in our heads.” And the media is part of the problem, she believes. “We’re all bombarded by bad news. You open up the newspaper and everyone has been murdered. Our poor brain can’t tell whether there is danger right behind us or if it’s halfway across the world.”

Her realisation about the prevalence of mental health problems led her to gatecrash a neuroscience course at University College London, where she attempted to understand the brain. “By then I had started to do research on what therapies were available that could help you self-regulate, so you would understand how your brain works rather than continuously unloading to a shrink.” she says. She discovered mindfulness, although she admits to initial apprehensions: “I hated the word. I thought it was going to be sitting in the lotus position or something to do with Buddhism.”

Nevertheless, she embarked on an eight-week course with Mark Williams, who co-developed mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. While it helped, she wanted to know how it worked. Williams advised her that the only way for her to study it further would be to get into the University of Oxford. And so she did, later publishing her new book, Sane New World, on the back of research conducted for her dissertation.

“Once you start studying, you do understand what’s going on inside your brain. I can imagine it. It really helps,” she says. “It makes me feel better to know that everybody has the same equipment.”

Throughout both her talks and her book, Wax is keen to make clear the reality of depression. “It’s a brain disease. Depression has nothing to do with being sad. It’s not because you had a bad hair day or even that your husband left town,” she says. “I’m trying to break that myth as fast as I can. I can only say it a hundred thousand times.”

Wax is passionate about ending the stigma faced by those with mental health problems, believing there should be “AA-style meetings” or walk-in centres for those suffering. “It’s too isolating, and that’s why people get seriously sick. You’d get a buddy and when you get really ill, you’d have someone to talk to. It’s the isolation that drives people to suicide.”

But she stresses that it’s not just the individual who is affected by depression: “It’s not just mental illness, it’s everything. Everything is affected; crime, society, suicide rates. We lose billions out of the economy because of absenteeism at work. It has bigger repercussions.”

She’s optimistic, however, that we will see a shift of perception in our lifetime, and compares the issue to the gay rights movement or changes in attitudes towards Aids. “I do think it will be the next one. This is kind of the zeitgeist now.”