Ruby Wax isn’t joking about mental health

Ruby Wax

Ruby Wax - Credit: Archant

As she prepares to appear at the Ham&High Litarary Festival, the ex-comedian explains how she has undergone a “reinvention”

Having made her name as a straight-talking comedian with a locomotive mouth in the 1980s, Britain is used to seeing Ruby Wax enthusiastically bounce her way across our television screens.

Over the last few years, however, she has shied away from broadcasting and undergone what she describes as a “complete reinvention”, re-emerging as a leading voice on mental health.

In 1993, shortly after having her third child, Wax was diagnosed with clinical depression. A sufferer since she was a young child, for a long time she would have a serious episode roughly every three years and says “the kindest act anyone ever did for me was give what I had a name”.

Two years ago, after touring a show which talked about her experience of mental health, Wax embarked upon and completed a master’s course at Oxford University, studying mindful-based cognitive therapy. Having completed her dissertation, she was inspired to write a new book, Sane New World, which is the basis of Wax’s appearance at this year’s literary festival.

“If I hadn’t gone to Oxford, it would have been impossible to write,” she says. “This isn’t a new age book or anything. It’s something I have been interested in since I was very young.”

Sombre, slow and serious in speech, the Ruby Wax now talking is a world away from the shaken-up can of cherry pop we have become accustomed to.

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Perhaps this is because the purpose of mindful-based cognitive therapy is, as she describes, a way of self-regulating your chemicals “so you don’t have to run to the shrink every time something feels out of control”.

Referring to the role of adrenaline and how it can become overwhelming in everyday life, Wax admits that her real persona isn’t quite as explosive as people might think.

“That stuff’s only on TV,” she says of her trademark style. “I’ve got to make a living and back when I was doing more TV I had to be in that state of mind more often.

“Of course it’s good to feel that rush, but you can’t stay so high otherwise the stress will burn you out. I’m sure there are some people who can cope, but I happen to have an illness so I can’t afford it.”

While Wax’s brand of cognitive therapy is particularly applicable for sufferers of depression and manic episodes, she also believes her book will apply to anyone with issues of self-doubt. She argues that the media telling us to be size-zero models and winners like Richard Branson means there will always be a tipping point when near-impossible dreams aren’t met.

“Everyone has envy – I do and it’s got nothing to do with depression. There’s simply too much news coverage of every little detail these days and that’s not even a question of mental health.”

So what does Sane New World hope to teach us?

Wax explains it is a case of re-wiring your brain and becoming its master, not its slave. Hopefully her book will prove to be a manual to the mind.

“In my time at Oxford, I learnt how the machine works. For instance, if you learn how your heart works, you’re less afraid of a heart attack. If you know how your brain works, it is easier to maintain some level of control on your emotions and behaviour.”

When her latest tour first began, Wax realised her worth by speaking to patients at a mental institution. “They knew I was one of them,” she adds, “and that I could really identify with them.”

This gave her the confidence to develop her voice as an expert, and reviews of the new book have only confirmed that. One UCL professor has even called it “a turning point in our battle to bring parity of esteem to mental and physical health”.

Carrie Fisher and Stephen Fry, two high-profile figures who have brought the issue of depression into public consciousness, have also given it celebrity backing, with the latter calling it a “ruby beyond price”.

When Wax brings her show to the literary festival, not only will she speak about these issues herself, but she will also bring experts on the subject to ensure any concerns raised by the audience can be answered afterwards in a Q&A session.

Stressing this is not her old act of stand-up comedy, Wax says her days of light entertainment are behind her and that this is very much her “new baby”.

“Evidently I’m way out of TV, but to do a show you still need to have that high level of adrenaline. I love it though so it doesn’t take as much away from me.”

With another mental health book on the way, is this the definition of the modern-day Ruby Wax – ex-comedian and mental health specialist?

“I think so. Unless I turn to modelling or something next.”

n Ruby Wax speaks at the Ham&High Literary Festival on September 17. Tickets are £12 and can be brought from