The majestic adaptation of Sally Rooney’s second book, Normal People, has captivated the nation. It has easily surpassed Killing Eve as the most watched series on BBC3. Indeed, its soaring popularity means that its now moved to prime time on BBC1.
Whilst the focus of the public’s attention has been specifically on the oscillating, on-off love story between Connell and Marianne, their relationship is to a large extent defined by their reaction to socials issues such as class difference and depression.
The portrayal of Connell’s slow descent into depression, and his subsequent recovery, captures the complexity and the fragility of mental health.
It shows how optics can be so misleading, masking what really lurks beneath. It shows how a well-liked, athletic, and borderline literacy genius, who on the outside has so much to live for, can be internally haemorrhaged, plagued by insecurity and self-doubt.
Depression is more than simply feeling unhappy. Most people go through periods of feeling down and are fed up for a few days. Depression is defined as being persistently sad for weeks or months. At its mildest, symptoms include being persistently low in spirit and energy, with little happiness or urge to socialise, whilst severe depression can make you feel suicidal.
There is no single cause of depression and sometimes different causes can combine to trigger depression. Normal People is a masterclass in subtly portraying how a multitude of factors can, slowly over time, combine to chip away at mental wellbeing, and how a negative event such as a bereavement can to tip you over the edge into chronic depression.
Below, we take a look at some of the causes of depression, and how this relates to Connell’s experience in Normal People.
1. A New Environment
Often a new environment, be it home or place of study or work, can result in an unfamiliar feeling, making us feel out of place, and give us a longing for a return to 'normal' with the comfort and reassurance this would bring.
Connell excels at English and gets a coveted place to study at Trinity College, Dublin. However, he's the only one of his close friends, aside from Marianne, to go to university.
He feels out of place, both respect to his home life, where he lives with strangers, as well as during lessons, where his colleagues are opinionated and more self-confident. The stark contrast, of being popular at high school, and not at university, also has a mental toll.
2. Feeling Out of Place
In many situations, be it at work or on social occasions, we can experience the feeling of not fitting in, of not being on the same wave length as the other people present. If it's a one-off, then the effects are likely to be short-lasting. If the feeling persists then this can lower general mood.
Whereas Connell was lauded at high school, at university he encounters a cultural difference that he struggles with, and to a large extent fails to overcome. The unease is reflected by his hesitation in voicing his opinion in lessons, and the difficulty making his own friends and integrating with Marianne’s friendship group.
Feelings of loneliness, which can caused by things such as becoming cut off from your family and friends can increase your risk of depression.
Connell's struggle to make friends, and the breakdown of the relationship with Marianne, leads to a struggle with loneliness. This is most often reflected by him reading alone in his bedroom, either in the house or living in halls.
You may be more vulnerable to depression if you have certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem or being overly self-critical. It is believed that this is due to a contribution of genetics inherited from your parents and early life experiences.
Through the dialogue with Marianne, it is evident that Connell has low confidence and suffers from self-doubt. Despite Connell already having achieved a scholarship, and getting a high profile offer from New York, his reaction to Marianne is, “Can you see me in New York?” Marianne earnestly reassures Connell that she could do.
5. Stressful events - money issues, break-up of a relationship, bereavement
Stressful events can take a heavy toll on mental wellbeing, and they can aggregate with other factors to be more severe. Whilst at university, Connell, already feeling lonely and deflated, encounters several events that negatively impact his mental state.
These include money worries after being furloughed at the restaurant where he works (without the income, Connell is forced to sub-let his room for the Summer) which has the knock-on effect of ending his relationship with Marianne.
Connell is then confronted with the suicide of a close school friend. He reacts badly to the news, attributing some of the blame to himself as he hadn’t seen him in a long while and hadn’t returned his calls. It is the suicide which tips Connell into chronic depression.
Normal People is just as eloquent documenting Connell's recovery from depression as it is showing his decent into it. The recovery is one of most memorable and uplifting moments of the series.
The first stage on the road to recovery is sharing his problem, first with his room-mate and then with a professional psychiatrist. The moment Connell opens up about his guilt regarding his friend's death is heart-wrenching. The psychiatrist provides a strong shoulder for him to lean on.
Connell’s depression also leads him to reconnect with Marianne. Indeed, the depression leads to the reestablishment of their relationship. By just being there, listening and counselling, she gives Connell the support that he needs to get through the worst periods of feeling down. As time passes, he eventually recovers, and emerges stronger on the other side.
The series eloquently shows that depression can be overcome. It shows the importance of reaching out for help and sharing troubles with other people and that once you come out at the other end of the tunnel, the sun shines just as brightly as when you first entered.