Over recent months I have been encouraged to see politicians and the media raising the profile of depression. According to the Mental Health Foundation 1 in 4 British adults experience one diagnosable mental health issue in any one year. The most common disorders experienced being mixed anxiety and depression, which affect between 8-12% of the population in the same period. Compare those figures with the estimated 1 in 3 people who will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime. Both are tragic, debilitating conditions that massively disrupt the lives of those affected. Both can be life threatening and yet both can also be survivable.
I have called this article ‘The Black Dog’ because that is the name the great Winston Churchill gave to his own depression which affected much of his life. One time he wrote: “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”. It is now thought highly probable that Churchill suffered from manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder. At times this blighted his political career. Yet at the hour of Britain’s greatest need he rose to lead this nation to victory over Nazism despite, some even think because of, his condition.
We have in Churchill a powerful example of incredible success in spite of his depression, yet it is a condition that is widely misunderstood, and rarely talked about by society in general or in the church. Many people will hide their own experience from even their closest friends and family for fear of being stigmatised. It is only in recent years that I have felt able to talk about an episode in my own life almost twenty years ago where the impulse to ride my motorcycle into the path of an oncoming juggernaut seemed an attractive proposition.
This Easter some words of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane jumped out at me. As he faced the prospect of his trial, floggings and ultimately crucifixion he said: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” At that point did Jesus too face the Black Dog which made the thought of death look preferable to the suffering he was about to go through? I find hope in Isaiah’s description of Jesus: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Even if others may not understand the desperate, loneliness that the Black Dog brings, I believe Jesus does.
This blog post featured in the June 2015 edition of Hook Focus