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Denise Welch: “I’m thrilled to be a voice for mental health”

One of the region’s most famous faces talks to High Life North about the success of her new book which charts her own struggles with depression.

By Jo Dunbar

With an acting career spanning over four decades and roles in high profile shows such as Coronation Street, Soldier Soldier, Waterloo Road and Calendar Girls: The Musical, as well as a regular slot on ITV’s Loose Women, Denise Welch is a highly recognisable face and she’s proud to hail from the North East. Aside from her acting work, Denise has long been vocal about mental health since her first experiences with depression as a brand-new mum 31-years ago. As well as speaking frankly about her own mental illness, last year Denise posted a series of very honest videos on social media whilst she was in the grip of a depressive episode. The videos went viral and led to her writing her new book The Unwelcome Visitor: Depression and How I Survive It which landed straight in the bestseller lists earlier this week.

Denise lives in Cheshire with her husband, artist Lincoln Townley, and is mum to Matthew, lead singer of the 1975, and Louis, an actor – her sons from her first marriage to actor Tim Healy.

You have written a very powerful book – do you believe you have a platform to help other people to cope with or understand depression?

I feel my mental health advocacy has always been my other job really. And every opportunity I get, I will talk about it. I don’t feel a pressure, but people have said I manage to talk about this illness in a way that a lot of people can’t. I think that’s partly because I’m an actress but mostly because I have spoken out for years. 31-years ago, when I had Matthew, nobody was talking about it in the public eye – at least no one I could access. I have written the book I would have needed when I was ill.

Do you think we, as a society, have made progress with mental health awareness?

I’m thrilled to be a voice for people and until I take my last breath I will be. Some of the comments and messages I’ve had from people who are still suffering in silence are heart breaking. There are still so many people relating to the story and feeling as though they don’t have a voice. We think we have come such a long way but the fact the book is resonating with so many people sort of says it hasn’t. This is where the world says it’s changed; often we say it’s good to talk but actually when you ring up and say you have a mental health problem and you can’t come into work for a few days, it’s a different story. I want to get it to a point where there is a parity between physical illness and mental illness.

You call your depression your unwelcome visitor, cloaked in either black or grey. Can you explain the difference?

If the unwelcome visitor has a grey cloak, I will often push myself through it, when I have done it, I turn to him and I swear. It’s a personal triumph. With the black cloaked visitor, I can’t do it. I’ve stood backstage before and I have felt this thing – my unwelcome visitor – coming. I stand there and I shout “Get away from me! I have to go on stage!” I’ve felt it coming before and I’m standing, with no understudy, a full auditorium waiting – can you imagine the fear of that? The show must go on – attitude is built in my DNA, like it is in every performer. When you play a West End show or a big musical, you have an understudy. When you are in a smaller venue like Bolton Octogon or Live Theatre Newcastle you don’t have an understudy. If you don’t go on, that theatre loses thousands of pounds. It’s not like calling in sick in an office.

Do you have any words of advice for our readers who might have their own Unwelcome Visitors?

Be kinder to yourself. For years I tried to work through the black cloaked visitor. Now, where I can, I will say I’m not going to work.

This book may reach a lot more people because of the timing. In lockdown there are people suffering mental illness that have never felt it before. This is not a self-help book; it’s how I survive depression. I am not in a position to tell other people how to survive anything. If they gain solace from that, then my job is done.

Social media can be viewed as a positive or a negative. You have used it to highlight your depression – did you ever expect your stories to cause such a reaction?

I woke up one morning and the grey visitor had arrived. A thought went through my head that I’m always talking about this when I’m well and being a bubbly TV presenter. I thought if I shared the good times, I needed to share the other side. I picked up my phone and said, “Here I am. In the middle of a depression and I’m going to let you know how this goes.” And I did. I didn’t know what the reaction would be; the first day I broke down in tears and posted that. I was off Loose Women poorly for four days, Lincoln looked after me. I wasn’t aware for a few days that it had gone viral. It was mainly people saying it was like looking in a mirror. Some people got in touch and said they had never empathised with depression, that they didn’t understand it but now they were going to educate themselves. That’s all I want. And those videos brought about the book. I never expected to have such a reaction.

You wrote about stopping drinking. Many of us have drunk more than usual since lockdown began. Do you have any messages for women who recognise they are relying on booze a bit too much?

It’s hard to give up drinking especially when you’re not perceived as having a problem. My favourite quote is: ‘Alcohol is the only drink you have to apologise for not taking.’ It is the worst drug of all. It’s something we need to address. We need to get alcohol under control. It’s legal, accessible and cheap. Alcohol ruined my life for 15 years, but not everybody drinks like I did. I know a lot of people who don’t think they drink a lot. It’s wonderful to take the edge off this global pandemic but then you wake up the next day with ‘hangxiety’. I spent 15 years doing that but in a major way to stop the pain in my head. I was self-medicating an illness. Giving up alcohol doesn’t cure depression. But my unwelcome visitor will stay for less time because I’m not keeping him there by drinking.

Would you ever move back to the North East?

The only reason not to is because it’s far from London, where I work. I only moved to the North West for Corrie. My ex-husband Tim lives nearby with his wife, so Louis goes between our houses. Most of my friendship group are here. Lincoln and I have thought it might be nice to invest in a little cottage on the North East coast. When I go back home, I get this feeling, you know, when you are from somewhere. There is something about where we were children and Tynemouth beach and Cullercoats: those places are very special to me.

North East favourites

Newcastle Theatre Royal is my favourite building and the entire Covid theatre situation has made me so sad. I can’t bear it. We are all trying to keep these places going, it breaks my heart that we could lose it.

Sale Pepe restaurant in Shotley Bridge. We go there with my Dad 

My favourite Indian restaurant is Simla on Newcastle Quayside: the best curry in the entire world.

We love the Hotel Vermont, we always stay there when we do Sunday for Sammy every two years. It makes me feel like I am home. 

Theatre royal pic credit: Sally Ann Norman

 

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