I feel no shame for my mental breakdown: it helped make me who I am | David Harwood
Tuesday was World Mental Health Day, and I was encouraged by a friend to tweet a word of support to help raise awareness for an issue that affects so many people in different ways.
I picked up my phone and tweeted about my experience some 20 years ago when I suffered depression and was severed under the Mental Health Act. In truth, I didn’t think what I wrote was a big deal. So I was amazed at the reaction: 30,000 people around the world liked or shared the post.
My own depression started shortly after leaving drama school. Despite a successful start, a few years after turning professional, I found myself deeply unhappy.
It’s only fitting that I’m writing this the same week government figures revealed the huge effects of ethnicity on life chances in Britain, because my own depression had everything to do with identity. Outside of drama school, in the acting world, I was forced to come to grips with the reality that I was no longer just another actor. I was a black actor.
I may have been deeply naive, but at no point during my studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art did the color of my skin cross my mind.
I was a kid at Birmingham Comprehensive School; I had never heard of Bertolt Brecht, had read Othello and cried at a production of King Lear when I was in school, so I knew Shakespeare was a bit special. But that was pretty much my limit. Suddenly, in drama school, I was exposed to all these amazing plays from all these amazing writers. I played King Lear in my second year.
But in the real world, I was never going to play those roles. Outside of Rada, these opportunities were not open to actors of color, and lead roles were rare, especially on television. I very quickly had to adjust my sails for shallower waters. It was extremely frustrating, because I knew I was capable of so much more. But my darkness had taken precedence over my talent.
Things took a turn for the worse when I played Sloane in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Derby Playhouse. When the play was first staged in London in the 1960s, it caused a scandal and I jumped at the chance for the central role. What I didn’t realize was that I was venturing into the treacherous waters of representation, and the question of how, as a black actor, you are supposed to represent blackness. Sloane is a scheming and murderous sexual deviant who finds himself in the servitude of two highly dysfunctional characters, and perhaps I should have seen how my blackness could be seen as adding a racial element to an already incendiary setup.
The play was very funny. The press night was a success so I dared to take a look at the reviews. I had heard they were generally positive and they were. Only the reporter from the local black newspaper had rejected him, and he was quick to name names. “Mr. Harewood should seriously consider his choices as an actor,” he wrote. “He shouldn’t represent the community in such a vile way.” He ended his article by suggesting that if people were going to see the show, they should walk out if, like him, they were disgusted by what they saw. And so, for the rest of the run, some nights as I delivered Sloane’s sordid monologue at the start of the second act, some of my siblings would get up and leave.
There I was, struggling with my black identity in a white world, and rejected by people who looked like me. It was a confusing time. I started to lose confidence on stage. I started drinking, before and after shows. Throwing myself maniacally into performances was the only way to block out what was going through my head.
But it was my next job that pushed me over the edge. I was cast as the “interracial love freak” in a touring production of a very flawed play about black identity. It was a disaster, made worse by the unwanted sexual advances of another company member. I couldn’t wait to go back to London, see my friends again and be happy again.
But he was already too late. I don’t have enough space in this article to tell you what happened between that date and the day I was admitted to Whittington Psychiatric Hospital in Archway, North London, but I will say this: I had a most extraordinary time. I don’t remember much of it, but I have vague memories of traveling around London, doing ‘street theatre’, singing on the tube and chatting with total strangers.
Help came when I had an audition in central London and was three hours late. The casting director, who later became a dear friend, recognized something was wrong and called my agent. Friends came and took me home. We all knew something was wrong, but we weren’t quite sure what to do, as it looked at first glance like I was having a good time. I visited a doctor but he gave me a bottle of pills after 20 minutes and said to my friends, “He looks like he thinks he’s Lenny Henry!” He should take them and get some sleep. I threw the pills in the trash on the way out.
The first time I realized I was in serious trouble was when I tried to get out of the hospital ward I was in, but couldn’t because the doors were locked. . I had been severed.
I received incredible support from friends and family, who visited me often and emphasized to everyone in the hospital that even though I seemed like a scary fat black man prone to outbursts of song and verse, I was actually an actor suffering from a nervous breakdown. a kind. My brother Paul gave me the best advice: “Dave… I know you steal a bit but if you want to get out of here you have to lower your voice and start acting normal.”
I followed his advice. Even though the Largactil (an anti-psychotic drug) was making my head spin, I decided to start taking control and cutting out the seizures. Eventually, with rest and incredible care from my mother, I pulled myself out of it, and within six to eight months was back to work.
I never had a repeat of what happened, and while many of the issues and pressures of identity and darkness are still with me, I am much better able to handle them now.
I’m more experienced, in life and in the industry too, and I’m reasonably sure of who I am and how I fit in. Personally, I believe that this episode gave me enormous strength. I’ve never been ashamed to talk about it – it’s my favorite pub anecdote – so I don’t know why it took so long to say it publicly. But I’m happy if what I said comforted or strengthened someone. If people now see me as the local weirdo, that’s none of my business.
If you have ever suffered or are suffering from any form of mental illness, I urge you to get help and wish you the best of luck. It’s more common than you might think. If you can find your way through the madness, there’s treasure in it, I promise you. I know because I found some. As King Lear said, “Oh ho, are you here with me? No eyes in your head, no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light; yet you see how this world goes.