Winston Churchill famously talked about his “black dog”, a metaphor for the depression, which plagued him for much of his life.

For me, the black dog conjures up images of the snarling, menacing, oppressive beast that haunted me when I was younger reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Hound of Baskervilles’. All the more sinister in its setting on the bleak, dark moors.

A powerful metaphor reflecting the terrible darkness, emptiness and hopelessness that ensnares those trapped in its jaws.

Although Churchill is responsible for popularising the hound, the origin of this metaphor goes back much further. According to Joan Webster, he has descended from Antiquity, right back to classical mythology in the form of ‘Cerburus, the huge black dog with three to fifty heads who guarded the gates of Hell or the Greek underworld’. In Hindu texts, he was part of a pack, the ‘Rakshas’, meaning ‘demon-dogs’; their leader representing evil, whose intent was to attack the human soul.

Over the last few centuries of European, and in particular British history, he has been representative of melancholia and ill temper. Churchill’s nanny is thought to have introduced the black dog to him, describing early morning surliness as having ‘the black dog on his back’.

Churchill is clearly not the only famous person to have battled with the black dog. Other famous people that his ancestors have attacked include Goethe, Tolstoy, Van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, Virginia Wolfe, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, Spike Milligan and Caroline Aherne. Famous people that he still attacks today include Stephen Fry, Peter Gabriel, Rory Bremner and Bruce Springsteen. Many of these have learnt ways to bring the black dog to heel. Some, as we know, have very sadly been less successful.

As we know from our work, the black dog growls and sinks his jaws into many people’s lives. And we as healthcare professionals are no exception. In fact, according to statistics from a Department of Health report on the health of health practitioners, we have higher rates depression, anxiety, stress, substance misuse and suicide than other professionals. Stigma, fear of failure, and effect on future career prospects and public persona, are among a few of the reasons why we don’t seek help. Untreated, it has consequences not just on ourselves, but our families, our friends, our colleagues and our patients.

I have just finished reading Journeys with the Black Dog a collection of ‘inspirational stories of bringing depression to heel’ commissioned by the Black Dog Institute in Australia.

This book moved me to tears. It is powerful, inspirational, sad and hopeful. It is a must read for anyone in healthcare, anyone who has depression or anyone who cares for someone with depression.

Depression is treatable. People do learn to live with the black dog and to bring him to heel. As doctors, we have excellent rates of recovery, higher in fact than the general population. So, if you are struggling, please do seek help. It could be transformational.


Recommended reading / resources

  1. You-tube clips, co-produced by the Black Dog Institute & WHO, each 4-5minutes long
  1. The Other Side of Silence by Professor Linda Gask, a psychiatrist whose memoir shows that shows how ‘it is possible to experience depression, but still have a successful, happy life and build a career.’

 If you have any other resources to recommend, please do share them below…


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