Tame the black dog
20th September 2015

Depression is an ever growing problem but there is a way to cope - as I explain in my book 'Taming the black dog' and the Herald Sun comment piece below.

 To beat the black dog of depression, you must face it

September 11, 2015 12:00am

REPORTS that Buddy Franklin will miss tomorrow’s preliminary final between the Sydney Swans and Fremantle because of a mental illness has focused attention on what former British prime minister Winston Churchill called his black dog.

Add the fact that yesterday was World Suicide Prevention Day plus RUOK? Day in Australia, in which the focus is on caring for others and offering guidance and support, and it’s timely to be open about depression and what needs to be done to be more resilient.

Depression is an illness that can affect anyone regardless of wealth, social status, occupation or background. Even worse, according to the Black Dog Institute, it affects one in five Australians aged between 16-85 every year, and one in seven Australians will experience depression at some stage in their lifetime. And, especially at a time when cyber bullying and sexting is so prevalent and increasing numbers of young people are using impersonal and unforgiving social networking sites to criticise and attack others, it’s clear that the problem will only get worse.

What’s to be done? The first thing to realise, especially for young men who are at a greater risk of self-harm and suicide, is to acknowledge there is a problem. As I know from personal experience when our son, James, was killed in a hit-and-run accident, being stoic and pretending that nothing is wrong only makes matters worse.

The danger for men is that they try to conform to the male stereotype of being strong and unemotional. The failure to deal with depression often leads to family violence, alcoholism and drug abuse as one lashes out at those who are closest and, ironically, in the best position to help.

Women, compared with men, appear more willing to reveal their inner thoughts and emotions, and it’s time men realised it’s all right to cry, to be open about their feelings. Seeking the love, sympathy and support from those closest helps share the loss and grief, and provides solace and comfort.

Getting advice from grief counsellors or psychologists is also vital as in addition to providing practical strategies to cope professionals understand the various stages of pain, anxiety and loss and can provide a much needed clinical perspective.

It’s also important to realise that there is no such thing as closure — losing a loved one in tragic circumstances, being laid off work, suffering poverty and financial hardship or a debilitating illness have long-term effects that are not easily dismissed or forgotten.

Even though James died more than 13 years ago, there is not a day that I don’t experience a sense of loss because he is no longer with us. While it is true, as a family, that we have thrown ourselves into life and achieved a great deal, we all share an enduring memory centred on a much loved brother and son. There are also stages of depression and loss, ranging from anger, denial, anguish, weariness and resignation, that need to be accommodated.

Believing life simply returns to normal is not an option and the challenge is to find the strength and understanding to maintain a sense of perspective and balance.

As a Catholic, the peace and solitude associated with prayer offers release, as does the belief that there is more to life than this worldly existence. Life includes joy and pain, happiness and sorrow and, as argued by the Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich: “But we cannot escape the suffering and the sorrow: there are dark sides to life. Realism forces us to face the fact. And the same realism enables us to trust the light and life and love in which we are enfolded.”

The danger of a material world in which consumerism is rife and advertising and a celebrity culture present a sanitised, picture-perfect image of life is that we forget that illness and depression are realities that cannot be ignored.

For those who are not religious there is also the option of channelling depression into something creative and positive. For Churchill, it was painting and gardening; for comedians such as Spike Milligan, it was laughter and humour; for Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, it was music.

For others, it might be something more personal like yoga or mediation, or simply taking the time to watch the evening sunset or to listen to the magpies warbling as they greet the morning sun.

Literature, art, music and dance also reveal the wonder, mystery and beauty of what it means to be alive. Anyone who has stood in front of Monet’s Water Lilies or Michelangelo’s David or listened to Handel’s Messiah or watched Swan Lake will understand how it is possible to experience a transcendent, harmonious sense of life.

While we all expect to travel through life untouched by sorrow or pain, the reality is that to be human is to be vulnerable to suffering and loss.

But, instead of dwelling in what the English poet John Bunyan called the “slough of despond”, like our family, it is better to affirm life, to be optimistic and to overcome adversity instead of giving up. As argued in the final lines of Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, it’s better “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”. 


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20th September 2015

Depression is an ever growing problem but there is a way to cope - as I explain in my book 'Taming the black dog' and the Herald Sun comment piece below. To beat the black dog of depression, yo...
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