Living with depression: how a carer copes

Laura Mappas
Monday, May 5, 2008
Depression. Image: Getty

While depression is no longer a taboo topic, the role of the carer is still often overlooked. After battling the condition for the past 20 years, author Matthew Johnstone decided to write about it in his book I Had a Black Dog. And his wife, Ainsley, has now decided to tell her story in, Living with a Black Dog.

What is the black dog?
The term was first coined by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who, for most of his life, battled bipolar disorder — a mental disorder marked by alternating periods of excitement and depression —. He used the term "black dog" as a euphemism to disguise his illness during a time when mental health was not openly discussed. Thankfully, these days it is.

Most of us would know of someone who has suffered from depression — the topic is no longer off limits. Frighteningly, the statistics back this up: about one in six Australian men will suffer from depression and women are twice as likely to experience the condition.

How do you know if you're depressed?
"When feeling low carries on over weeks or months or years, that's depression," says Matthew.

What are the signs?
Disturbance in sleep is at the top of the list. Next up is poor concentration, followed by mood swings, withdrawal and unhappiness.

"In my early- to mid-20s I was pretty social," says Matthew, "but then other days I'd just want to crawl into a hole. At first I thought it was just my moods, but as I got older the time between each visit [from the black dog] would be shorter." This type of hibernation is typical of depression sufferers and another sign to watch out for.

Steps to recovery
There are several treatments for depression and they are often used in combination. First up there's the counselling, then self-help treatments such as regular exercise, eating a balanced diet and getting enough rest and finally, anti-depressants.

"Counselling is vital," says Matthew, "but I never push drugs — they can give you a more level playing ground to help you deal with your problems, but they are also dolled out very quickly in Australia. Plus, the side effects from the drugs are sometimes worse [than the depression itself]."

Instead, Matthew promotes eating a well-balanced diet and getting some exercise. Finally, if you can find a quiet 20 minutes in your day, Matthew says meditation makes you "more centered and peaceful".

A call out to the carers
The difference between Living with a Black Dog, and Matthew's first book, I Had a Black Dog, is that it is written from the point of view of the carer.

Alarmingly, carers have the highest rates of depression — and it's not surprising, given they have the responsibility of caring for, listening to, and being supportive of the person suffering from depression. That's no easy feat.

What should a caregiver do when dealing with a person with depression?

  • Listen, instead of passing judgment.
  • Encourage the sufferer to seek professional help. "People closest to us are sometimes too close and can come across as nagging or picking," says Matthew. "A psychologist is neutral."
  • Encourage the sufferer to take some responsibility for getting better by managing their stress, accepting their illness and exercising and eating well.
  • Finally, the caregiver should make sure they still have a life of their own. Matthew says "depression can be contagious" and becoming co-dependant could see the carer caught up in the cycle of depression.

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