DEPRESSION -- IT'S NOT JUST A BAD HAIR DAY; Ruby Wax Knows about the Anguish of Mental Illness. Sophie Goodchild Hears How Her Own Experiences Have Inspired a New Play

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Byline: Sophie Goodchild

YOU'RE the wildebeest on the outside that's going to get eaten first," says Ruby Wax. "The moment you're maimed mentally means you're lunch. It's totally primitive." Wax is sitting in a smart west London restaurant discussing mental illness -- and how the rules of the jungle still apply if you "crack up".

The 57-year-old comedian has always been relatively open about her depression and treatment at the Priory clinic. But, she says, there is still huge stigma for sufferers like her -- the one in four who experience "the dark side".

"It used to be whether you were gay, then it was cancer," says Wax. "Once you couldn't be a witch and now it's if you have a flaw [of mental illness]. You're not as resilient as the rest of the human race, definitely."

Like all true performers, Wax, famed for her acerbic interviews with O J Simpson and Imelda Marcos, has taken life experience and turned it into theatre. Her play Losing It, also starring singersongwriter Judith Owen, is vintage Wax, where nothing is taboo: psychiatric treatment, self-image, relationships and the shallowness of celebrity.

Her own spiral into depression began shortly after the birth of her youngest child Marina, now 16. At the time the comedian was desperate to disguise her "flaw" from everyone, including her closest friends.

"It felt totally shameful -- that comes free with the package. Because you can't see any lumps or tumours or skin conditions, people think you're making it up. I whispered to a few producers and they'd understand. But I didn't have a nine-to-five job so I could manage it. If you have to be at work, you'd have real trouble."

The man who "saved" the comic was Dr Mark Collins, a lead psychiatrist at the Priory whose former patients are understood to have included Kate Moss and Princess Margaret.

Mood-stabilising drugs were a key part of the treatment, although it took time to find a combination that worked. "He knew how to make 'cocktails'. He's a psycho-pharmacist, he was a cardiologist, a nerve scientist ... you can't get better than that. He saved me."

For the record, Wax has depression, not bipolar disorder, as has been asserted wrongly in past interviews. She is at the "vanilla" -- mild -- end of the mental health spectrum. "I'm extremely lucky," she says.

Yet every five years she is vulnerable. The first sign of her depression is a dry mouth which, says Wax, is "always a surprise -- like menstrual cramps. It feels like you took a drug. …