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TEDGlobal 2012

Ruby Wax: What's so funny about mental illness?

June 26, 2012

Diseases of the body garner sympathy, says comedian Ruby Wax -- except those of the brain. Why is that? With dazzling energy and humor, Wax, diagnosed a decade ago with clinical depression, urges us to put an end to the stigma of mental illness.

Ruby Wax - Comedian and Mental Health Activist
Ruby Wax is a loud, funny woman -- who spent much of her comedy career battling depression in silence. Now her work blends mental health advocacy and laughs. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
One in four people suffer from some sort of mental illness,
00:15
so if it was one, two, three, four, it's you, sir.
00:19
You. Yeah. (Laughter)
00:23
With the weird teeth. And you next to him. (Laughter)
00:25
You know who you are.
00:28
Actually, that whole row isn't right. (Laughter)
00:29
That's not good. Hi. Yeah. Real bad. Don't even look at me. (Laughter)
00:31
I am one of the one in four. Thank you.
00:37
I think I inherit it from my mother, who,
00:42
used to crawl around the house on all fours.
00:45
She had two sponges in her hand, and then she had two
00:48
tied to her knees. My mother was completely absorbent. (Laughter)
00:51
And she would crawl around behind me going,
00:55
"Who brings footprints into a building?!"
00:58
So that was kind of a clue that things weren't right.
01:01
So before I start, I would like to thank
01:03
the makers of Lamotrigine, Sertraline, and Reboxetine,
01:09
because without those few simple chemicals, I would not be vertical today.
01:13
So how did it start?
01:18
My mental illness -- well, I'm not even going to talk about my mental illness.
01:23
What am I going to talk about? Okay.
01:27
I always dreamt that, when I had my final breakdown,
01:29
it would be because I had a deep Kafkaesque
01:34
existentialist revelation,
01:36
or that maybe Cate Blanchett would play me and she would win an Oscar for it. (Laughter)
01:39
But that's not what happened. I had my breakdown
01:43
during my daughter's sports day.
01:46
There were all the parents sitting in a parking lot
01:48
eating food out of the back of their car -- only the English --
01:52
eating their sausages. They loved their sausages. (Laughter)
01:56
Lord and Lady Rigor Mortis were nibbling on the tarmac,
02:02
and then the gun went off and all the girlies started running,
02:07
and all the mummies went, "Run! Run Chlamydia! Run!" (Laughter)
02:09
"Run like the wind, Veruca! Run!"
02:15
And all the girlies, girlies running, running, running,
02:18
everybody except for my daughter, who was just standing
02:21
at the starting line, just waving,
02:24
because she didn't know she was supposed to run.
02:27
So I took to my bed for about a month, and when I woke up
02:29
I found I was institutionalized, and when I saw the other inmates,
02:33
I realized that I had found my people, my tribe. (Laughter)
02:38
Because they became my only friends, they became my friends,
02:42
because very few people that I knew -- Well, I wasn't
02:46
sent a lot of cards or flowers. I mean, if I had had a broken leg
02:49
or I was with child I would have been inundated,
02:52
but all I got was a couple phone calls telling me to perk up.
02:54
Perk up.
02:58
Because I didn't think of that. (Laughter)
03:00
(Laughter) (Applause)
03:04
Because, you know, the one thing, one thing that you get with this disease,
03:08
this one comes with a package, is you get a real sense of shame,
03:12
because your friends go, "Oh come on, show me the lump,
03:16
show me the x-rays," and of course you've got nothing to show,
03:18
so you're, like, really disgusted with yourself because you're thinking,
03:21
"I'm not being carpet-bombed. I don't live in a township."
03:24
So you start to hear these abusive voices, but you don't hear one abusive voice,
03:27
you hear about a thousand -- 100,000 abusive voices,
03:30
like if the Devil had Tourette's, that's what it would sound like.
03:33
But we all know in here, you know, there is no Devil,
03:37
there are no voices in your head.
03:39
You know that when you have those abusive voices,
03:41
all those little neurons get together and in that little gap
03:43
you get a real toxic "I want to kill myself" kind of chemical,
03:46
and if you have that over and over again on a loop tape,
03:50
you might have yourself depression.
03:52
Oh, and that's not even the tip of the iceberg.
03:54
If you get a little baby, and you abuse it verbally,
03:57
its little brain sends out chemicals that are so destructive
04:01
that the little part of its brain that can tell good from bad just doesn't grow,
04:04
so you might have yourself a homegrown psychotic.
04:08
If a soldier sees his friend blown up, his brain goes into
04:11
such high alarm that he can't actually put the experience into words,
04:15
so he just feels the horror over and over again.
04:18
So here's my question. My question is, how come
04:21
when people have mental damage, it's always an active imagination?
04:24
How come every other organ in your body can get sick
04:28
and you get sympathy, except the brain?
04:31
I'd like to talk a little bit more about the brain,
04:34
because I know you like that here at TED,
04:36
so if you just give me a minute here, okay.
04:38
Okay, let me just say, there's some good news.
04:41
There is some good news. First of all, let me say,
04:43
we've come a long, long way.
04:47
We started off as a teeny, teeny little one-celled amoeba,
04:49
tiny, just sticking onto a rock, and now, voila, the brain.
04:53
Here we go. (Laughter)
04:58
This little baby has a lot of horsepower.
05:00
It comes completely conscious. It's got state-of-the-art lobes.
05:02
We've got the occipital lobe so we can actually see the world.
05:06
We got the temporal lobe so we can actually hear the world.
05:10
Here we've got a little bit of long-term memory,
05:13
so, you know that night you want to forget, when you got really drunk? Bye-bye! Gone. (Laughter)
05:14
So actually, it's filled with 100 billion neurons
05:19
just zizzing away, electrically transmitting information,
05:23
zizzing, zizzing. I'm going to give you a little side view here.
05:26
I don't know if you can get that here. (Laughter)
05:29
So, zizzing away, and so — (Laughter) —
05:32
And for every one — I know, I drew this myself. Thank you.
05:36
For every one single neuron, you can actually have
05:40
from 10,000 to 100,000 different connections
05:44
or dendrites or whatever you want to call it, and every time
05:47
you learn something, or you have an experience,
05:51
that bush grows, you know, that bush of information.
05:53
Can you imagine, every human being is carrying
05:56
that equipment, even Paris Hilton? (Laughter)
05:58
Go figure.
06:03
But I got a little bad news for you folks. I got some bad news.
06:05
This isn't for the one in four. This is for the four in four.
06:09
We are not equipped for the 21st century.
06:12
Evolution did not prepare us for this. We just don't have the bandwidth,
06:16
and for people who say, oh, they're having a nice day,
06:20
they're perfectly fine, they're more insane than the rest of us.
06:22
Because I'll show you where there might be a few glitches
06:26
in evolution. Okay, let me just explain this to you.
06:28
When we were ancient man — (Laughter) —
06:31
millions of years ago, and we suddenly felt threatened
06:34
by a predator, okay? — (Laughter) —
06:38
we would — Thank you. I drew these myself. (Laughter)
06:42
Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you. (Applause)
06:45
Thank you. Anyway, we would fill up with our own adrenaline
06:49
and our own cortisol, and then we'd kill or be killed,
06:53
we'd eat or we'd be eaten, and then suddenly we'd de-fuel,
06:55
and we'd go back to normal. Okay.
06:59
So the problem is, nowadays, with modern man— (Laughter) —
07:00
when we feel in danger, we still fill up with our own chemical
07:06
but because we can't kill traffic wardens — (Laughter) —
07:09
or eat estate agents, the fuel just stays in our body
07:14
over and over, so we're in a constant state of alarm,
07:19
a constant state. And here's another thing that happened.
07:21
About 150,000 years ago, when language came online,
07:23
we started to put words to this constant emergency,
07:26
so it wasn't just, "Oh my God, there's a saber-toothed tiger,"
07:29
which could be, it was suddenly, "Oh my God, I didn't send the email. Oh my God, my thighs are too fat.
07:31
Oh my God, everybody can see I'm stupid. I didn't get invited to the Christmas party!"
07:35
So you've got this nagging loop tape that goes
07:39
over and over again that drives you insane, so,
07:42
you see what the problem is? What once made you safe
07:44
now drives you insane.
07:47
I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but somebody has to be.
07:49
Your pets are happier than you are. (Laughter)
07:52
(Applause)
07:58
So kitty cat, meow, happy happy happy, human beings, screwed. (Laughter)
08:01
Completely and utterly -- so, screwed.
08:06
But my point is, if we don't talk about this stuff,
08:09
and we don't learn how to deal with our lives, it's not going
08:11
to be one in four. It's going to be four in four
08:13
who are really, really going to get ill in the upstairs department.
08:16
And while we're at it, can we please stop the stigma?
08:19
Thank you. (Applause)
08:22
(Applause) Thank you.
08:28
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Ruby Wax - Comedian and Mental Health Activist
Ruby Wax is a loud, funny woman -- who spent much of her comedy career battling depression in silence. Now her work blends mental health advocacy and laughs.

Why you should listen

Winston Churchill called it "the Black Dog" -- a depression that settled over him and drained the flavor from life. Ruby Wax knows the Black Dog well; throughout the '80s and '90s, during a flourishing career as a brash comedian and interviewer in the UK, it trotted at her heels, even while she was interviewing the Duchess of York and sorting through Imelda Marcos' shoes.

After taking a timeout to learn how to manage the condition, Wax produced a stand-up comedy show called "Losing It" that directly addresses her mental health experiences, hilariously but powerfully. And she's started up a new social network called the Black Dog Tribe, which offers a community and support to people with depression. Meanwhile, she's working on her Master's in cognitive therapy.

Also, this year, Ruby was honored as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her mental health work.

As she says: "I've always said to myself, if you've got a disability, use it." Read our Q&A with >>

Ruby is also a visiting professor at The University of Surrey.

The original video is available on TED.com
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