Emma Thompson is an award-winning British actress. She’s also battled severe depression for most of her life that has at times crippled her.
Her first encounter with depression was when she was acting in Me and My Girl:
I think my first bout of that was when I was doing Me and My Girl, funnily enough. I really didn’t change my clothes or answer the phone, but went into the theatre every night and was cheerful and sang the Lambeth Walk. That’s what actors do. But I think that was my first bout with an actual clinical depression.
She did what many people do when they go through their first bout of clinical depression: put the masks on and try to push through the depression. After a public and painful divorce with Branagh, she suffered another period of severe clinical depression. Going through a painful separation is often a catalyst for depression, manifesting in periods of grief. Thompson credits writing on the computer as an aid to her recovery. She would often force herself to do this to get better and keep on some track:
The only thing I could do was write. I used to crawl from the bedroom to the computer and just sit and write, and then I was alright, because I was not present.
Sense and Sensibility really saved me from going under, I think, in a very nasty way.
Emma Thompson needed to escape her painful feelings:
Asked what she was escaping, Thompson said: “Oh, you know, the voices in my head. The constant “must do better”, “must try harder” plus “you’re too fat and not really a very good mother”.
“That punitive conscience is part of my psychiatric problem.”
That’s one of the best quotes that encapsulates depression. A forceful superego that punishes and condemns the person telling them that they are not good enough no matter what they achieve and how hard they try. It is essential to acknowledge the inner voice of condemnation. The need to push and push to be more perfect often seems like function of a perfectionist mentality driving for more. The good news is that thoughts can be changed; the first step is identification, which in this case Emma Thompson did.
But in Emma Thompson’s case it seems that she didn’t necessarily use CBT or medication to treat her depression. She used something that she was familiar with: reading Jane Austen. The Telegraph wrote of Emma Thompson’s situation:
And it’s not just about escaping back to the 18th century, to a land of petticoats and Regency toffs in breeches. Austen, like Shakespeare, still resonates because she tells us modern truths: that decent people end up in impossible situations through no fault of their own. And that if they are good (Emma Woodhouse), honest (Lizzie Bennett), and true (Fanny Price) there is a good chance it will all come right in the end. (Interestingly Claire Tomalin, Austen’s biographer, suggests she too may have suffered deep depression, which may have helped her to write so humanely about the complexities of emotional life.) *
By reading books we realise it is possible to endure. They conclude their penetrating and insightful analysis with:
Perhaps this is the clearest message; one that Thompson worked out, while miserable in her departing husband’s dressing gown, and others are just grasping right now. And it’s a message that literature delivers far more effectively than most self-help books, or the velvety tones of Oprah Winfrey: you will endure this, just as other people have endured it. And you can survive.
While books can sometimes be escapism and a way to avoiding reality, there is also the human need for mutual understanding and sympathy. What better avenue than through stories? How many times have I heard a statement along the lines of “that film or book changed my life”. Works of art agitate our imaginations and provoke new ideas at the same time as reaffirming our experience or plight.
Only recently at 51, did she admit to suffering the blues again. She openly acknowledged how depression is still covered up by people:
I suffer from occasional mild depression, which I think is a very common thing – it’s fantastically common in my country and probably in yours, too – and it’s a very much hidden thing people don’t talk about. I think it should be discussed *
Thankfully, people like Emma Thompson open up about their own mental health issues, to the benefit of the community at large. She is truly inspirational.
How Emma Thompson Beat Depression
Hard work can sometimes be the best distraction from troubling emotions. Emma Thompson poured herself into writing.
She has expressed her problems publicly and raised awareness about depression. Efforts to destigmatise mental health always seem to benefit the person’s own mental health.
Emma came forward and admitted the problem. This crucial first step is often delayed by people trying to beat depression in seclusion or alone (this never works, believe us!)
While going to far into fantasy and imagination can be dangerous to some people with mental health, a healthy amount of exposure to new worlds, ideas and words is always good for engaging the brain.
References and further reading
The Telegraph on how hard work helped Emma Thompson beat depression
The Telegraph on the healing power of Jane Austen