Why I think people should stop using the black dog as a metaphor for depression

Source: I had a black dog, his name was depression https://youtu.be/XiCrniLQGYc

A mate recently changed her social media profile picture to an image of someone being held down by a large black dog.

This was her way of letting her friends and family know that she was struggling with depression, and we were able to understand why she seemed more upset, tired, irritable and despairing than she usually did, and help her if we could.

The black dog has been a metaphor for depression for centuries but was popularised by former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He is quoted as having speculated that therapy might be helpful for him “if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colours come back into the picture.”

Source: I had a black dog, his name was depression https://youtu.be/XiCrniLQGYc

There’s even a Black Dog Institute in Australia which was founded in 2002, and while I applaud its aims of reducing the incidence of mental illness and the stigma around it, I disapprove of its name and logo which refers to the term Churchill used to describe his own depression; a black dog that was lurking in the background.

I know there can be value in using a metaphor as a tool to help people express their experiences. But I think using the black dog as a metaphor is outdated and possibly even harmful to an animal that is supposedly “man’s best friend”.

Although there is undoubtedly still some stigma and discrimination around mental health issues, depression is nowhere near as taboo a subject as it was in the past.

Depression is an increasingly common mental disorder. Seven in ten GPs have said that more people are coming to see them with mental health problems. Depression is the predominant mental health problem worldwide, and it is estimated that it will affect one in four people this year. You can’t just sweep that under the carpet.

Depression is increasingly common

Fortunately, the internet, and the proliferation of television channels, has made it easier for people to find information, help for themselves or others, and to spread awareness.

Depression has affected me, on and off, since I was around 20 years old. It got so bad when I was in my early 30s that I got professional help. I took antidepressant pills for a while, which didn’t help me very much, and I had some cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which did help.

Sometimes when I was struggling with my low mood, I would change my social media profile picture too. This was more for my own benefit than as a signal to my contacts. If I didn’t want to see a photo of myself smiling because that wasn’t how I felt inside, I might change my picture to one of me facing away from the camera towards a pretty view, or to one not showing me at all.

Most of my pictures over the last couple of years have featured my dog, because I love her – and all dogs.

Me and my dog Ruby

It breaks my heart when I hear stories about dogs in need of a new home being overlooked by potential new owners simply because they are black. This is a recognised issue known as Black Dog Syndrome.

There seems to be a misconception that black dogs are less friendly or more aggressive. The colour black may be associated with evil or misfortune, similar to the common superstition surrounding black cats.

People often say that black pets don’t photograph very well, at least when the photo is taken by an amateur. Their features, apart from their eyes, often remain hidden and they may appear less interesting or lacking in character. This could affect their chances of adoption because so many pets in rescue centres are viewed online before being visited.

People often say black pets are harder to photograph than lighter coloured ones

This also means that the type of people who want great photos to post on social media to convince others, and perhaps even themselves, that they lead a great life, might be more likely to choose a lighter coloured pet.

I suspect that the negative connotation of the black dog in the depression metaphor also plays a part, perhaps not even consciously, in people’s bias against black dogs in rescue centres and society.

If people feel the need to use metaphors, in a health context or any other, I wish they would avoid ones relating to living creatures and use other terms such as “black hole” or “black cloud” instead. It doesn’t matter to the weather what you think of it.

If you need information or support regarding depression you can visit the mental health charity Mind at www.mind.org.uk.