And while we’re at it, can we please stop the stigma?”

Ruby Wax on why mental illness is increasingly more and more commonplace in the 21st century

If one was to picture every person they knew in a singular room, 26.2% of them would immediately have something in common. This commonality is not hair color, shoe size or clothing size, in fact it isn’t a physical attribute at all. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness this 26.2% would have some form of mental health problem and they would be part of the 61.5 million Americans age 18 or older that deal with a mental health issues.

Yet, despite the sheer number of Americans who suffer some form of bipolar disorder, depression or mood disorder, the majority of the public continues to stigmatize those affected. By continuing to shame the people who are sick, it creates an environment of isolation, self-defeat and makes sufferers more reluctant to get help.

British comedian and actress, Ruby Wax is no stranger to dealing with mental illness, and has openly admitted to dealing with episodes of depression throughout her life. Until Ruby was checked into a treatment center she was unaware of how many people dealt with depression, just as she had. Since her diagnoses of depression, Ruby has been a pioneer for the destigmatization of mental illness and now blends her comedic abilities with mental health advocacy to educate others. Ruby has not only created the Black Dog Tribe, a social network for others suffering with depression, but also written two books on mental health, which have been praised for being both equally funny and serious.

“1 in 5 people have dandruff. 1 in 4 people have mental health problems. I’ve had both.” — Ruby Wax

In June of 2012, Ruby debuts in her first Ted Talk, titled “What’s so funny about mental illness?” where she puts a face to mental illness by telling her own story of how she was institutionalized. Through humor, a play doh brain and science, Ruby explains why mental illness is becoming more and more commonplace. Posing the question, “How come every other organ in your body can get sick and you get sympathy, except the brain?,” Ruby urges her audience to stop the stigma around mental illness before the 26.2% of Americans with mental illness becomes 100%.

One in four people suffer from some sort of mental illness, so if it was (points and begins counting off) one, two, three, four, it’s you, sir. (points at man) You. Yeah.(laughter) With the weird teeth. And you next to him. (laughter) You know who you are. (points again and waves finger back and forth) Actually, that whole row isn’t right. (laughter)

That’s not good. Hi. Yeah. Real bad. Don’t even look at me. (laughter)

I am one of the one in four. Thank you. I think I inherit it from my mother, who, used to crawl around the house on all fours. She had two sponges in her hand, and then she had two tied to her knees. My mother was completely absorbent. (Ruby laughs)

Zoloft (sertraline), an antidepressant

And she would crawl around behind me going, (thick Austrian accent) “Who brings footprints into a building?!” So that was kind of a clue that things weren’t right. So before I start, I would like to thank the makers of Lamotrigine, Sertraline, and Reboxetine, because without those few simple chemicals, I would not be vertical today.

So how did it start? My mental illness — well, I’m not even going to talk about my mental illness. What am I going to talk about? Okay. I always dreamt that, when I had my final breakdown, it would be because I had a deep Kafkaesque existentialist revelation, or that maybe Cate Blanchett would play me and she would win an Oscar for it. (laughter)

But that’s not what happened. I had my breakdown during my daughter’s sports day. There were all the parents sitting in a parking lot eating food out of the back of their car — only the English — eating their (thick accent) sausages. They loved their sausages. (laughter)

Lord and Lady Rigor Mortis were nibbling on the (reaches downward) tarmac, and then the gun went off and all the girlies started running, and all the mummies went, (high pitched voice) “Run! Run Chlamydia! Run!” (laughter) “Run like the wind, Veruca! Run!”

And all the girlies, girlies running, running, running, everybody except for my daughter, who was just standing at the starting line, just waving (waves to the audience), because she didn’t know she was supposed to run. So I took to my bed for about a month, and when I woke up I found I was institutionalized, and when I saw the other inmates, I realized that I had found my people, my tribe. Because they became my only friends, they became my friends, because very few people that I knew — Well, I wasn’t sent a lot of cards or flowers.

I mean, if I had had a broken leg or I was with child I would have been inundated, but all I got was a couple phone calls telling me to perk up. Perk up. Because I didn’t think of that.

(Laughter & Applause)

Because, you know, the one thing, one thing that you get with this disease, this one comes with a package, is you get a real sense of shame, because your friends go, “Oh come on, show me the lump, show me the x-rays,” and of course you’ve got nothing to show, so you’re, like, really disgusted with yourself because you’re thinking, “I’m not being carpet-bombed. I don’t live in a township.” So you start to hear these abusive voices, but you don’t hear one abusive voice, you hear about a thousand — 100,000 abusive voices, like if the Devil had Tourette’s, that’s what it would sound like. But we all know in here, you know, there is no Devil, there are no voices in your head. You know that when you have those abusive voices, all those little neurons get together and in that little gap you get a real toxic “I want to kill myself” kind of chemical, and if you have that over and over again on a loop tape, you might have yourself depression. Oh, and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. If you get a little baby, and you abuse it verbally, its little brain sends out chemicals that are so destructive that the little part of its brain that can tell good from bad just doesn’t grow, so you might have yourself a homegrown psychotic. If a soldier sees his friend blown up, his brain goes into such high alarm that he can’t actually put the experience into words, so he just feels the horror over and over again.

So here’s my question. My question is, how come when people have mental damage, it’s always an active imagination? How come every other organ in your body can get sick and you get sympathy, except the brain?

I’d like to talk a little bit more about the brain, because I know you like that here at TED, so if you just give me a minute here, okay. Okay, let me just say, there’s some good news. There is some good news. First of all, let me say, we’ve come a long, long way. We started off as a teeny, teeny little one-celled amoeba, tiny, just sticking onto a rock, and now, voila, (lifts sheet off a play doh brain enthusiastically) the brain. Here we go. (laughter)

This little baby has a lot of horsepower. It comes completely conscious. It’s got state-of-the-art lobes. We’ve got the occipital lobe so we can actually see the world. We got the temporal lobe so we can actually hear the world. Here we’ve got a little bit of long-term memory, so, you know that night you want to forget, when you got really drunk? (throws off piece of the brain) Bye-bye! Gone. (laughter)

So actually, it’s filled with 100 billion neurons just zizzing away, electrically transmitting information, zizzing, zizzing. I’m going to give you a little side view here. I don’t know if you can get that here.

(unveils picture and audience laughs) So, zizzing away, and so — (laughter)— And for every one — I know, I drew this myself. Thank you. For every one single neuron, you can actually have from 10,000 to 100,000 different connections or dendrites or whatever you want to call it, and every time you learn something, or you have an experience, that bush grows, you know, that bush of information.

Can you imagine, every human being is carrying that equipment, even Paris Hilton? (Laughter & Ruby shakes her head) Go figure.

But I got a little bad news for you folks. I got some bad news. This isn’t for the one in four. This is for the four in four. We are not equipped for the 21st century. Evolution did not prepare us for this. We just don’t have the bandwidth, and for people who say, oh, they’re having a nice day, they’re perfectly fine, they’re more insane than the rest of us. Because I’ll show you where there might be a few glitches in evolution. Okay, let me just explain this to you.

When we were ancient man (flips up caveman sign and audience laughs)— millions of years ago, and we suddenly felt threatened by a predator, okay? (flips up a dinosaur sign and audience laughs)— we would — Thank you. I drew these myself. (laughter) Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you. (Applause) Thank you.

Anyway, we would fill up with our own adrenaline and our own cortisol, and then we’d kill or be killed, we’d eat or we’d be eaten, and then suddenly we’d de-fuel, and we’d go back to normal. Okay. So the problem is, nowadays, with modern man (flips up a third sign and audience laughs) — when we feel in danger, we still fill up with our own chemical but because we can’t kill traffic wardens

(shows a traffic warden sign and audience laughs) — or eat estate agents, the fuel just stays in our body over and over, so we’re in a constant state of alarm, a constant state.

And here’s another thing that happened. About 150,000 years ago, when language came online, we started to put words to this constant emergency, so it wasn’t just, “Oh my God, there’s a saber-toothed tiger,” which could be, it was suddenly, “Oh my God, I didn’t send the email. Oh my God, my thighs are too fat. Oh my God, everybody can see I’m stupid. I didn’t get invited to the Christmas party!” So you’ve got this nagging loop tape that goes over and over again that drives you insane, so, you see what the problem is? What once made you safe now drives you insane.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but somebody has to be. Your pets are happier than you are.

(laughter & applause) So kitty cat, meow, happy happy happy, human beings, screwed.(laughter)

Completely and utterly — so, screwed.

But my point is, if we don’t talk about this stuff, and we don’t learn how to deal with our lives, it’s not going to be one in four. It’s going to be four in four who are really, really going to get ill in the upstairs department.

And while we’re at it, can we please stop the stigma? (bows) Thank you. (Applause) Thank you.

Allen Klein once said, “Humor can alter any situation and help us cope at the very instant we are laughing.” When talking about such a heavy subject that affects so many friends, family and loved ones, humor is essential. Ruby Wax strikes the perfect balance of humor and seriousness in her Ted Talk, by shamelessly telling her personal story of her struggle with depression. Ruby not only opens doors for communication about mental health on all fronts but also puts a funny and familiar face to the disorder. Within a mere 8 minutes and 44 seconds, with the help of props and fast paced explanation, Ruby effectively describes the innerworkings of the brain that dispose individuals to developing a mental illness. At the end, Ruby takes a deep bow, urging viewers and audience alike to stop the stigma around mental illness, because, “if we don’t talk about this stuff, and we don’t learn how to deal with our lives, it’s not going to be one in four. It’s going to be four in four who are really, really going to get ill.”


  1. Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson Jr. “Depression’s Evolutionary Roots.” Scientific American. August 25th, 2009. April 29th, 2015.
  2. Jennifer Bixler. “More than 1 in 10 in U.S. take antidepressants.” The Chart. October 19th, 2011. April 29th, 2015.
  3. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness.” Mayo Clinic. May 17th, 2014. April 28th, 2015.
  4. Psych Central. “Worst Things to Say to Someone Who’s Depressed.” Psych Central. 2013. April 29th, 2015.
  5. Peter Wehrwein. “Astounding increase in antidepressant use by Americans.” Harvard Health Blog. October 20th, 2011. April 29th, 2015.
  6. “How Common is PTSD?” U.S Department of Veteran Affairs. November 10th, 2014. April 29th, 2015.
  7. “Mental Health By the Numbers.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. April 29th, 2015.
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  9. “Ruby Wax” Time to Change. April 28th, 2015.
  10. “Ruby Wax.” April 28th, 2015.
  11. “Serious Mental Illness (SMI) Among U.S. Adults.” National Institute of Mental Health. 2012. April 29th, 2015.
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