Disorderly Lives; Men Are Three Times More Likely to Commit Suicide Than Women. Are They More Prone to Depression, or Is It Just That They Won't Own Up to Needing Help? Novelist and Manic Depressive Richard Mason Tells His Own Cautionary Tale

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard Mason

I had dinner recently with an old friend, a lawyer with a beautiful wife, three adorable children and a mood disorder that regularly finds him thinking of death as he dresses for work. A bankruptcy attorney, he's in one of the few professions that's thriving during the credit crunch. He has a healthy bank balance, an unmortgaged house on Ibiza and a wonderful sense of humour.

Unfortunately, the qualities that have helped him build an enviable life are also risk factors for manic depression: the higher your IQ , the greater your likelihood of experiencing extreme - and often extremely unpleasant - mood swings.

There are times when he can put in a 16-hour day at the office and still find the energy to be funny at dinner parties. At other times, he can barely get out of bed and cries in the bathroom during client dinners.

Roughly one per cent of the population has manic depression, also known as bipolar affective disorder. It is strongly hereditary and can lead to strings of deaths in the same family, as witnessed by the recent suicide of Nicholas Hughes, son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. His mother gassed herself when he was one. Sufferers experience extreme oscillations of mood, and can ricochet between elation and despair over extended periods - or several times in the same day. But although the disorder does not discriminate along gender lines, the statistics suggest that men find it harder to ask for help and seek effective treatment; and this is one of the reasons why men are almost three times more likely to commit suicide than women.

My friend described his own predicament.

Though its details were highly specific, the arc of his story resonated personally. I come from a long line of charismatic, volatile eccentrics, as he does. My sister Kay committed suicide when I was a child, and our family tree is dotted with untimely deaths. When my first novel, The Drowning People, was published, my life turned into just the kind of crazy roller-coaster ride that people with predispositions to bipolar disorder should avoid. The book was widely translated, and I found myself in a different country each week, answering the same ten questions again and again. It won a prize, and that unleashed further high-octane excitement. I was living too hectically and not sleeping enough, and in breaks between publicity tours I'd return to my flat, close the door, and not get out of bed until the next morning's TV show.

By the time I'd finished my second novel, Us, I was in such a fragile state that I found myself crying on Tubes and buses. I thought writing was the problem, and feared I'd never want to do any again. That made life seem joyless, and not worth the effort. Though I'd experienced swinging moods before, I knew that this time I'd ended up in a hole I couldn't get out of on my own. For a few weeks I hesitated because I felt that seeking psychiatric help was a dangerous step, an admission that something was seriously wrong.

But something was seriously wrong. And when I finally saw a doctor, he was able to explain things to me. 'It's not true that the highs make you creative,' he said. …