Urban myth holds that it was Sir Winston Churchill who first coined the term ‘Black Dog’ as a metaphor for depression, although the origins probably go back much further. The metaphor is used as a way of trying to capture the nature of depression as a constant companion and as something that, at times, bares its teeth and snarls. If we’re not careful, it will sink its teeth in and possibly not let go.
Over the years, various suggestions have been made about how to tame the Black Dog. Most of this advice has focused on how to get the lead on the dog’s collar so that it's under control. And this advice bears repeating here. When you hear the first low growls, stop and take a look around and don’t panic. Then evaluate your situation. Which direction did that growl come from? What caused the dog to growl? Did you miss a sign that warned you to Beware of the Dog? In other words, what has triggered the depression; what’s been going on for you and what signs have you missed? Or it might be more a case of what have you not been doing, something you’re neglecting that usually helps you to keep on an even keel? If you’re able to get a sense of it, the next step is to try to formulate some kind of plan to address it. Having a plan is, metaphorically speaking, your way of putting the Black Dog on a lead. But here’s the really difficult bit; how do you do that? That’s one scary dog and it’s probably going to put up a bit of a fight.
Here’s where I want to offer a slightly different perspective. Most of the language used when describing this standoff with the Black Dog is more akin to combat and control; that Black Dog needs to be put in a cage. But the person-centred approach to depression sees in the Black Dog an opportunity for personal insight and growth. Depression is a sign that your inner self, your core self is struggling to be heard and it’s now demanding your full attention. That Black Dog is following you around and growling in order to get you to listen to those parts of your ‘self’ that have been squashed, dislocated or disfigured. There’s been a tendency in the last fifty or so years to medicalise distress as an illness that can be managed with medication. And for some, that approach will provide a lifeline.
But the person-centred approach is built on the foundations of positive psychology and argues that depression can be a force for good. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that depression per se is a good thing. I’ve witnessed and experienced first hand just how debilitating it can be. But it’s in our nature to want to move forward; to thrive and not just survive. Carl Rogers, the founder of the person-centred approach, referred to this as ‘the actualising tendency’. Depression may be an indication that ‘something’ is blocking that forward movement; and that the things we are doing in order to manage depression may be helping us to survive (and that’s a good thing!) but they’re not doing much more than that. That may be why depression can be so persistent and recurrent. So if we rush to tame the Black Dog and keep it under lock and key, we miss an important opportunity - to listen, to acknowledge, and perhaps even to accept. We might not be able to change anything, but we might change the way we ‘are’ with it.
So, rather than attempt a standoff with the Black Dog, sit down and stretch out your hand in welcome, and let it approach.