“I was depressed,” he explained. “I think it’s important to say that that’s what happened.”
It was an unusual – even jarring – public statement. But as McMahon said: if he had had a cold, he would have said so without hesitation. Reluctance to admit to another form of illness only adds to the stigma.
Last week the Productivity Commission found mental ill health and suicide cost the Australian economy up to $51 billion a year in lost productivity. The costs from diminished health and life expectancy were even greater.
Despite government campaigns, public ambassadors and community efforts to encourage people to talk about their mental health, “too many people still avoid treatment because of stigma”, said the lead commissioner on the inquiry, Stephen King.
Last week wasn’t the first time McMahon has addressed his depression publicly. He cried during a 10-minute Facebook video with Whitelaw about how they’ve factored his mental health into their partnership. Years ago, in his former home of Perth, he amazed his psychologist by speaking about his challenges on the air.
“The paradox about the whole thing is: it’s so obvious the way out is through communicating, and to tell people what you’re going through – because you can’t help yourself,” he says. “And that’s the hardest thing to do in the world.”
McMahon and Whitelaw met as school friends, and have worked together for more than 10 years. But McMahon says Whitelaw had to “massively adapt” to his depression. By his own account he can become abrasive, negative, overbearing and “really, really hard to be around”.
His influence as a radio host – especially as part of a young male duo – is not lost on him. He says the added responsibility drives him to be as open and honest as possible about his mental state.
“It’s the sort of courage you get when you’re trying to get to 10 push-ups and you’re at nine,” says McMahon. “When I’m on the precipice, when I’m about to do it publicly on the mic, there’s that weird invisible barrier of masculinity stymieing my emotions.
“I get that sense of: nah, come on, I can push through this and this is going to be important for the other person I’m talking to. If I can muscle up and feel a bit awkward and help someone, I’d rather do that.”
But honesty doesn’t always come easily, or automatically. A day after going home early from work, McMahon went to a wedding where he told an old friend he was drinking gin and tonic, rather than confess to staying sober because he was depressed. Later, he came clean.
McMahon is the first to say it takes courage to speak honestly about mental health, but he resists calling it “brave”, fearing that makes the act of communication seem even more daunting.
“There’s a difference between balanced, open approaches to this and just smothering it in over-zealousness and all that fanfare,” he says. “I think that actually starts to hurt more than help.”
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.