When the older generations say “People weren’t depressed in my day”, or “What are you depressed about? You have everything.”, it can be easy to judge them harshly. Perhaps, this is not what they mean to say (unless they truly are arseholes). Perhaps, it is a matter of visibility. Let’s look back fifty years, to the end of the swinging sixties. During this time, social revolutions where taking place left, right and centre; Stonewall, Woodstock and the Sexual Revolution (ménage à trois baby) to name a few. All of these events were shocking, controversial and to the older generation of that time, improper. Now look at us: LGBT+ people have more rights (it’s not a perfect world but its a better one), we resist war as the hippies did, and sex is no longer taboo (some people bump uglies Sharon).
In 1963, a novel by Sylvia Plath was published, and boy, was it important. If you look at Plath’s childhood and education through the ignorant eyes of a baby boomer, you would say “She didn’t have a bad childhood. What was wrong with her?”. Yet, when Plath was in university her depression started to become apparent. She self-harmed, attempted suicide and spent six months in a psychiatric facility receiving electric and insulin shock therapy. Over the course of her 30-year life, Plath would attempt suicide three times, and was successful on the third attempt. Plath’s book ‘The Bell Jar’ is a semi-autobiographical novel, which mirrors her suffering and pain through a fictional character.
I read ‘The Bell Jar’ when I was 16, and over the years, it has stuck with me as one of my favourite books. It was at this time that I was going through the beginning of my struggles with my mental health, something that I had not realised until therapy in my 20s. Esther, the protagonist, is a young woman with big dreams and big demons – we shared that. At 16 I was started my A-Levels, with aspirations of going to university and paving a successful future for myself. My family were financially stable and emotionally stable, and from what I could remember, my childhood was absolutely fine. Except, I wasn’t fine. Problems with anxiety from years of bullying, and struggling through the minefield of my sexuality took a toll on me. I was confident and sassy on the outside, and on the inside, I was a mess.
Reading the ‘The Bell Jar’ was relieving; there was someone who understood how difficult life could be. If there was no Bell Jar, there would have been no one for me to relate to. If there was no Bell Jar, there would be no first-hand account of women’s suffering with depression in the 50s, and we wouldn’t be able to shame the past for it. Yes, societal roles of women isn’t perfect today but we have come an awful long way. Yes, recognition and treatment for depression isn’t perfect today, or even close to it, but let’s be thankful that we are not still receiving electric shocks to treat it.
Why is ‘The Bell Jar’ so important? Plath laid her demons out through the written word, and she could not overcome her depression – so it’s up to us, as a society, to do better by her and make sure we aren’t losing people because they didn’t have help.
If you would like to read more about how I came out, feel free to read My Coming Out Story.
If you are struggling, and aren’t sure what to do, feel free to visit my Help page where you will find websites and hotlines for global organisations.
Featured Image Credit 📷: Jelle van Leest