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#MENtalHealth: An interview on living with, and overcoming, the 'black dog' of depression


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As part of The National Student’s MENtal Health content series, we sit down with Jo, 49. In our chat, he looks back on his struggles with depression, before looking forward to consider how conversations surrounding mental health in the workplace and in society are improving.

Jo tells us that, over the last 35 years, he has experienced difficult episodes of depression, but it wasn’t until the beginning of this year that he really began to understand and address the mental health issues he has been facing.

“I [had] mental health first aid training at the beginning of the year, and that had forced me to confront my own mental health problems in the past,” he tells us. “For me, the tipping point within that was a particular video segment which was sponsored by the [World Health Organization (WHO)].”

This video, which had so strongly impacted Jo, is called, ‘I had a black dog, his name was depression’.

It was created by WHO in collaboration with writer and illustrator Matthew Johnstone, featuring a black dog which clings to one man to represent the experience of living with, and overcoming, depression.

“It was really powerful,” says Jo. “It captured so perfectly where I knew I had been previously.”

Jo emphasises the importance of having strong mental health support systems in place at work.

“I think there are a number things about work that impact on your mental health,” he says. “Most of us spend more time with work colleagues than we do with most other people and so that level of understanding and the ability to reach out to your colleagues on their mental health… is really important.”

Some UK mental health helplines:

Mind: 0300 123 3393 / text 86463

Samaritans: 116 123

CALM: 0800 58 58 58

Papyrus: 0800 068 41 41

When Jo initially opened up about his mental health issues to a few colleagues, he received a very positive response: “The one or two people that I had spoken to about it within the company had said how liberating it was to have somebody who was relatively senior come out and say that this was something they were struggling with.

“There was this sense that if, actually, I was able to do that, then I’m sure it would also help other people who were struggling to do that as well.”

With this in mind, Jo gave a talk about mental health to his colleagues at work, including the video of the black dog in his presentation. He says it was “not the easiest thing to do… but it was the right thing to do.”

He considered it particularly important to do the talk to raise awareness of the issue, and to highlight that there are likely more people around us who are struggling with their mental health than we may realise.

Image credit: Laura Hope, 2018. This is an original illustration, created for this article.

“People were glad that [the issue’s] been raised,” says Jo. “And I think it’s probably helped me to accept that part of myself as well, so from a personal perspective it was good too.”

Part of accepting his mental health issues was acknowledging that, although he does what he can to help and support other people, sometimes he too may need support, which others are willing and able to provide.

“Personally and professionally, I’ve always seen myself as the kind of person that people come to with their problems," says Jo, adding that he finds it hard when he feels unable to help them. “There are times when I just can’t deal with it, which is really quite hard because I start to question: well, if I can’t do that consistently, what is my role?

“It’s more complicated than that," he recognises. "Good human relations work on different levels at different times.”

Jo considers general conversations around mental health to be improving, particularly among younger people: “I think there is a generation angle… I watch my sons, who are at university age, and they are much, much more able to talk about this sort of thing than older people can be, and that’s good – that’s really positive.”

This article is part of The National Student’s MENtal Health content series which is led by Laura Brown. You can see more from the series here.

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