Sit. Stay. Treat. When the ‘Black Dog’ of Depression Nips at Your Heels

imagesOne in five people will experience depression at some point in their lives, and despite this prevalence, depression remains rife with preconceived notions that continue to carry a crippling stigma.

For those who suffer from it, depression is an all too familiar companion. At times, the tenacious clinging of deep melancholy follows the depressed at every turn, beginning when one rises in the morning, closely nipping at the heels throughout the day, and ending with laying at the foot of the bed at night, ready to do it all again the next day. It should be no surprise then depression has been long equated with the imagery of a black dog. Although made famous by him, Winston Churchill is often mistakenly credited with coining the term ‘black dog’ for depression. Actually, its usage goes back further. In the 1780’s Samuel Johnson used the term to describe his bouts of depression. The Roman poet Horace maintained that the observation of a black dog denoted a premonition of bad luck for the observer:

“No company’s more hateful than your own

You dodge and give yourself the slip; you seek

In bed or in your cups from care to sneak

In vain: the black dog follows you and hangs

Close on your flying skirts with hungry fangs.”

Thinking of your depression in terms of “Man’s Best Friend,” may sound a little silly – maybe even downright disrespectful. But, consider this: a stray dog can be a mangy mongrel of a nuisance. As children we are oft taught not to approach strange dogs for fear of getting bitten. Yet, the dog remains the first animal to be fully domesticated for the benefit of humans. Some canines even, like my Pomeranians, were bred solely as a companion animal. So, if we take that stray dog in, clean him up, give him a meal – we may be more inclined to getting to understand this creature. Before you know it that stray has a name and becomes a member of the family. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Like so, with depression. When we put a name to our depression, we give it credence. We give it ownership. And when we give it that acknowledgement, we can find ways to treat it, maybe even learn to live with it – not as a monkey on our backs, not as an ominous black dog, but as a member of a sophisticated relationship.

Some warriors for depression and suicide awareness have even adopted the black dog as their standard, a bold symbol meant to stand out in a crowd and effectively garner the attention of others.
logogoOne such organization is the Black Dog Institute, “a world leader in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder1.”  The Australian institute was founded in 2002 with an ambitious goal – “to [improve] the lives of people affected by mood disorders through [their] high quality translational research, clinical expertise and national education programs1.” In order to fund these tremendously important endeavors, the BDI relies heavily on donations and sponsors.

One of its prominent beneficiaries is Steve Andrews and his Black Dog Ride, an annual weeklong motorcycle ride and annual daylong motorcycle ride in Australia. The dual stigmas of depression and suicide hit home hard for Steve Andrews, who lost both his mother and his best friend’s wife to suicide, after both beautiful women suffered silently and alone with depression for years. His message is powerful. His rides are deeply symbolic of the long road ahead for sufferers of depression. And while it is certainly a long and winding road ahead, Steve Andrews’ vision for a stigma-free world drives him and those who join him on his ride steadfastly forward.  In 2012 over 500 bikers participated, raising over $260,000 in donations for mental health services. With such a generous donation, the BDI was able to “[deliver] over 150 presentations, workshops, lectures and support sessions in five states with a particular focus on rural and remote areas… directly [touching the lives of] almost 15,000 Australians.1images-1

In addition to direct activism, the image of the Black Dog has also found itself sniffing around the literary world. Les Murray, an Australian poet, anthologist, and critic, captured his struggles with depression in a book of prose entitled “Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression.” Murray, who “subscribes to the view that depression is caused by killing-the-black-dog-a-memoir-of-depression-e1338901083322inexplicable changes in brain chemistry… also believes that suppressed anger contributes [to depression]2.” Looking at depression through the lens of the doggerel offers a truly unabashed experience, where the reader is given the rare opportunity to watch Murray’s gradually slow collapse into self-destructive thinking, self-piteous lamentations, and dissension into despair. His poems are truly an honest reflection of a deeply personal experience.

The Black Dog has also found itself meandering into the world of law and (dis)order. A man dubbed the Black Dog Strangler was not named as such due to a propensity for cruelty towards black dogs. Rather, Phillip Westwater, 44, was given the moniker after he strangled Derek Williams, a patient at Ashworth Hospital, Liverpool. Although Westwater admitted to manslaughter, it was on the grounds of diminished responsibility, having become convinced Williams had turned into a black dog.

The color black has long been attributed to funerals and death, times of fear and emptiness, and the crushing presence of the threatening unknown. Since it reflects no light in the visible spectrum, black symbolizes a primordial void – a deep, unshakable sense of loneliness.

But, black can also stand for hope. Even in the darkest times, hope lies in the recesses of retreating light. So, too, does the dog represent this duality of nature. A good dog can easily become a best friend and a loving companion – yet even a good dog, when aggravated, has the potential to bite the hand that feeds.

When depression grasps you firmly in its clenched jaws, do not panic. Take time out to think: what might you have done to antagonize your black dog? With a level head you’ll be able to make possible a seemingly impossible task – to teach an old dog new tricks, so to speak. Depression can be crippling, but it is not a death sentence.

Depression is treatable. When times get really tough, slap the leash on the black dog and regain your position as the leader of the pack. 

References and Further Reading:

1. The Black Dog Institute

2. Black Dog Ride

3. In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression John Bentley Mays. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, N.Y., 1999

4. Killing the Black Dog: A Memoir of Depression

Les Murray

5. I Had a Black Dog

Matthew Johnstone

6. A Point of View: Churchill, chance and the ‘black dog’

7. Les Murray and the Poetry of Depression

By Meghan O’Rourke murray-and-the-poetry-of-depression.html pagewanted=all&_r=0

8. Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars

9 thoughts on “Sit. Stay. Treat. When the ‘Black Dog’ of Depression Nips at Your Heels

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      That’s incredibly awesome of you and I’d be more than happy to assist you. To narrow it down (since there are so many wonderful organizations out there!) we’re you thinking something local or national?

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