Winston Churchill and his faithful Black Dog


How do you describe your bad days; those days when nothing seems right? Does the way you describe it affect your experience; how long it lasts; what you feel you can do about it?

Winston Churchill was renowned for having periods of low mood. On one website (The Conversation Jan 2015) it claims that Churchill “was so paralysed by despair that he spent time in bed, had little energy, few interests, lost his appetite, couldn’t concentrate. These darker periods would last a few months.” Lord Beaverbrook, a friend of Churchill said he was always either “at the top of the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression”

Churhchill referred to his moods as his “black dog”.  He wasn’t the first to use the term, as long ago as 1783 Samuel Johnson used it when discussing his own melancholia; “when I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking…”

 [For a detailed account of the Black Dog’s history see Australian Black Dog Institute article by Megan McKinlay.]

As a metaphor for low mood we need to ask what it conveys: What does it say about moods and what causes them? How does it shape the person’s experience? Dogs are known as faithful. They follow their masters round. Churchill’s friends and family are said to have referred to it “as a familiar visitor”. Does this suggest an inevitability about being in a low mood?

Churchill was, of course, aware of a different metaphor. In 1911 he wrote to his wife, Clementine, after hearing a friend’s wife had received some help for depression from a German doctor; “I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns….”

This metaphor of depression as illness has gained significant ground in recent years. Clothed in the language of science it has permeated all levels of social discourse, so much so that it can easily be mistaken for fact rather than mere metaphor.

One aspect of this is that this medical metaphor of depression as mental illness has been superimposed on the past. The National Alliance on Mental Illness includes Churchill along with Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven and Tolstoy in their list of famous people who lived with mental illness. Many commentators have argued that Churchill “suffered from manic depression” or “bi-polar disorder”.

However, not everyone agrees. Carol Breckenridge on the website of the International Churchill Society, in an article entitled The myth of the black dog, concedes that Churchill did have dark moods but argues in detail he was not bipolar. She writes that Churchill would be surprised to know that his many references to his innocent childhood phrase “Black Dog”, an expression of Victorian nannies to connote bad moods, would be used after his death to declare him mentally ill.

He was certainly an impressive man. While some wish to preserve his good image by denying he was mentally ill others wish to diagnose him and use him as an example of someone who struggled successfully with issues. Whichever description you choose, Black Dog or Bipolar, it is probably the case that Churchill and those around him did not have a psychological view of his low moods.

The name we give to our low moods is important. GlaxoSmithKlien knew this all too well when they realised they were not selling many antidepressants in Japan. Japanese men, in particular, had their bad days, but they were not describing these in ways that led them to think they needed medication. GSK set out to change this. Koji Nakagawa product manager for Paxil, GSK’s antidepressant, said “When other pharmaceutical companies were giving up on developing antidepressants in Japan, we went ahead for a very simple reason; the successful marketing in the united states and Europe”. The company relied on educational campaigns targeting mild depression. Nakagawa said; “People didn’t know they were suffering from a disease. We felt it was important to reach out to them”. The company formulated a tripartite message; “depression is a disease that anyone can get. It can be cured by medicine. Early detection is important”. These three were supplemented by the controversial idea that the cause is a chemical imbalance in the brain. One of GSK’s main ads featured a beautiful young lady who smiles and says, ‘I went to a doctor and now I’m happy’.

[For adetailed account of GSKs attempt to change the way Japanese men describe their low moods see Chapter 4 of Ethan Watters’ book Crazy Like Us; The Globalisation of The Western Mind. It is well worth a read, as are the other chapters, if one wants to understand the commercial influences and how ideas are marketed. Also see Did Antidepressants Depress Japan? Kathryn Schulz, The New York Times Magazine, 2004.]

The psychological consequences of calling your low moods a ‘blackdog’ may not be very clear. However, if you accept GSK’s ‘education’, the consequences are all too clear. You will regard your low moods quite differently. They are no longer ordinary or acceptable; you will have higher expectations of how you should feel. Your low moods mean something is wrong; they are signs of a disease. As this disease can happen to anyone and presumably at any time you need to be watchful. You need to know what the so-called symptoms are. Since early detection is important, you are likely to become sensitised to these symptoms. [for an understanding of how giving meaning to something changes the way we unconsciously become sensitised to noticing it, see The Red Mini under Thinking Tools]. As it is a chemical imbalance in your brain the problem is in you as an individual. There is littleyou can do to avoid it. You become less able to help yourself and more dependent on help. The best you can do is spot it early and get the medication as soon as you can. However, you may become worried about yourself, even frightened and for this reason unwilling to recognise how you are feeling. In this way the idea of mental illness actually creates stigma.

In these ways the metaphor of depression as illness changes your experience. As the metaphor spreads like a disease through the culture it changes how all of us think about ourselves. 

Is there an alternative? Are moods anything to do with the way we are thinking? Is there a metaphor that puts our thinking at the heart of our low moods?  

How you answer these questions depends on whether you think thinking matters. Does the view we take of a situation make a difference to how we feel? Epictetus thought so; “Men are not disturbed by things, but by the opinions they make of them.” So did Shakespeare; “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

In my book Thinking Matters and on this site under Thinking Tools I use the everyday example of the Decorated Room to explore the different ways we can look at our decorating when we have finished. This offers a psychological understanding of the positions we take and the feelings they contain. It also illustrates how our thinking has momentum and how moods can evolve as a result.

Perhaps a more general metaphor for understanding our low moods would be painting a picture. When you paint (or do anything creative) you are faced with a multitude of choices. We could regard our thoughts at anypoint in time like a picture. When we are low it’s as if we are creating a picture like Edvard Munch’s The Scream or some of Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastic images of hell. On the other hand, we could think like Monet’s Bridge at Giverny, or La Danse by Matisse.

What would it be like if we lived in a culture that recognised thinking as something we are doing? How different would that be? Rather than becoming obsessed with naming our difficulties as illnesses we would turn our attention to how we are thinking; what we are focusing on, what judgements we are making and how we were convincing ourselves just how good or bad things are.

Does the painting metaphor make more sense than black dogs and mental illness? Does it work for you? Tomorrow morning when you wake and, like Samuel Johnson, you take your breakfast, ask yourself what picture you are painting of the day ahead.

See the source image

Painting by Churchill from (Daily Mail)