There is much about contemporary life, and its previous manifestations, that should make us melancholy, if not depressed. The sight of a dead child on a beach, his refugee parents' only crime that they sought to provide him with a life free of the terror of war. Stories of women and children being raped in refugee camps under Australian jurisdiction on islands off the coast. Forlorn men, and women, shuffling out of abandoned factories and workplaces, victims of modern capitalism. The killing of more than 60 women a year in Australia by men who refuse to accept that a woman has the right to end a relationship.
Unfortunately, the current mental health narrative appears to have little interest in an examination of the existential reasons ordinary people become melancholic or depressed. Instead, we've developed an obsession with celebrity victims of depression.
When Lance "Buddy" Franklin announced he would take no part in the Sydney Swans' finals campaign last year because of "mental health problems", his decision was met with a wave of sympathy. While it certainly raised the profile of depression, "enough to save lives", said Jeff Kennett, the chairman of beyondbue, such was the ambiguity surrounding Franklin's health that it added nothing to the broader discussion as to what constitutes depression.
Despite its many shortcomings, the response to Garry Lyon's predicament, particularly in social media, has raised genuine questions about the way we define depression. It's instructive that Caroline Wilson did not once use the word depression in her article "No winners in footy's media scandal" (The Age, 18/2). Lyon, she said, had experienced "an emotional breakdown" as a consequence of the professional and personal ramifications of having "behaved badly and selfishly" by engaging in a relationship with the separated wife of his Footy Show mate Bill Brownless.
Lyon's emotional turmoil was framed as a noble manifestation of a wrongdoing rather than archetypical clinical depression. Kennett embellished, and modified Wilson's argument, declaring Lyon was "seriously ill" and that those with a counter view were, "being hurtful and should butt out". Kennett's browbeating cuts no ice with me. As premier he did many things I considered hurtful to the emotional wellbeing of my community, including closing schools and selling off public assets.
Too often, discussion around the wellbeing of celebrities comes at the expense of an examination of the mental health pressures on ordinary working people that flow from bad policies and economic inequality.
Such questions are surely at the forefront of the thinking of people asking why Lyon's emotional turmoil is being framed within the depression discourse. That doesn't mean the critics are insensitive to his current predicament, only that we should be careful about framing every manifestation of personal turmoil within the depression paradigm. When we do, we should at least try to make a distinction between clinical depression and melancholy, temporary or lingering.
The shortcomings in the depression discourse aside, the most telling message in the current public narrative is that women are mere chattels. While Lyon's character and talents and his battle with fame have been documented in minute detail, Nicky Brownless is almost invisible. Yes, we've seen the photos and know she's blonde, but there's not been a line depicting her as the face of modern womankind; an independent woman prepared to end a marriage in which her husband admitted he "could have been a better husband" and that life in the "fast lane" had made him "selfish and self-absorbed". Not a word about how the world has changed and that women have the right to end an unsatisfactory marriage and choose with whom they have a relationship.
In choosing to have a relationship with her husband's best mate, Nicky Brownless has "led" a man to contravene one of the great tenets of patriarchy. As Wayne Carey's fall from grace after an affair with Kangaroos teammate Anthony Stevens' wife bore testament in 2002, sleeping with the best mate's wife remains one of the great taboos in a society where the laws of patriarchy still linger.
That Carey had grabbed a woman's breasts in a city street six years earlier – he has expressed remorse about that – paled into insignificance with him having sex with another man's wife. The relegation of woman to chattel is the reason our courts have a history of finding an excuse for a man who kills his "wife" and that society expresses unequivocal solidarity with a man whose wife has been "appropriated" by his best mate.
It is understandable that Billy Brownless has been hurt by his wife's relationship with Lyon, especially given the way it has been and will be played out in public. It is said to have started before the couple separated. But does it deserve the level of public and media angst it's precipitated? Historically, it was men who have had the rub of the green when it came to affairs. With the advent of contraception, feminist thought and the economic opportunities that flowed in the 1970s, women began to desert marriages at a rate that dwarfed the past. It's one of the reasons, I would argue, domestic homicide rates are so high. For the truth is that many men still refuse to accept a woman's right to end a relationship and find a new one.
Unlike many women of her age and circumstances, Nicky Brownless chose not to live in her well-known husband's shadow. Instead she found a relationship, maybe one built on love with a family friend. It was always fraught with danger, given the circumstances, but it's entirely consistent with a world in which women have been told they have the same rights as men.
It's time men just got over this sense of entitlement. So, too, is it time we stopped turning every man who loses his wife into a victim. That doesn't mean being insensitive to the emotional pain that separation so often brings or the personal ramifications of this story. It simply means affording women the same rights as those bestowed on men.
Phil Cleary is a writer, broadcaster and former independent federal MP.