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Human Rights

Back to listSep 14, 2007

SGI-Australia Cosponsors Forum on Depression and Its Creative Potential

On September 14, 2007, SGI-Australia hosted a forum on depression at the SGI-Australia Culture Center in Sydney. Jointly sponsored by SGI-Australia and the University of Sydney Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, the forum aimed at fostering a correct understanding of depression, raising awareness about the dignity of life and nurturing positive interactions with people suffering from depression. Two well-known psychiatrists and two prominent professionals who live with depression shared their experiences and insights on living with the affliction. Sydney Peace Foundation Director Stuart Rees, an honorary professor at the University of Sydney and a long-time friend of the SGI, was panel moderator and MC for the evening.

Some 250 guests and local residents gathered for the event, which also included "Dark to Dawn: Being Creative about Depression," an exhibition created by SGI-Australia.

During a vibrant, interactive forum, panelists discussed the relationship between depression and dialogue, how to care for those with depression and the creative potential of depression.

Dr. Gordon Parker, executive director of the Black Dog Institute, a research and educational facility on mood disorders, explained that the subject of mood disorders is a complex issue owing to the different forms they take, and gave a description of the broad categories of depression. Winston Churchill, who coined the phrase "Black Dog" to describe his deep, dark lows, is perhaps the most famous example of clinical depression. Dr. Parker said a surprising number of people whom he has met through his work as a psychiatrist are appreciative of having experienced depression, feeling it made them better people.

Dr. Geoff Gallop, former premier of West Australia, stunned the nation in January 2006 when he stated publicly that he was being treated for depression and was giving up his post to ensure full recovery. Dr. Gallop said he used to keep his feelings bottled up, which heightened his depression. "The thing I notice now was that I had an inability to laugh," he said. "Imagine a state where you cannot laugh. It's horrific." Dr. Gallop said that climbing out of the depths of despair has made him more empathetic of the human condition.

Matthew Johnstone, an award-winning advertising executive-turned-author, discovered that success in advertising, which brought him from his native New Zealand to Sydney and eventually to the United States, did not bring him happiness. "I was an ad man by day and a sad man by night," Mr. Johnstone told the audience. He said he might have continued his exhausting charade indefinitely had it not been for one thing: "I was one block from the New York World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That was the tipping point for me."

Mr. Johnstone said the traumatic event spurred in him a quest for more authenticity and that quest led him to write and illustrate a book titled I Had a Black Dog, an autobiographical account of his efforts to deal with personal depression. The book, which he wrote in four-and-a-half hours, quickly achieved cult status owing to its entertaining, easy-to-digest account of a man and his "dog." "It came out of me like a river. The experience was very profound."

Mr. Johnstone said life truly changed for him when he stopped writing about his suffering and began to keep a gratitude journal. "We can write on and on about how miserable we are, but when I wrote about what I am grateful for, well that way of writing was like pennies-of-wellness in my mental piggy bank."

Panel members agreed that helping sufferers of depression reconnect with society was vital to recovery.

"Connectedness is the thing. When we learn medicine, the first thing we learn is we have to keep our patients connected to us," said Dr. Karen Fisher, who works with patients acutely addicted to drugs at Westmead Hospital in western Sydney. She said connectedness is critical because it helps sufferers work out how their own lives inherently fit in with other members of society.

During a Q&A session following the panel discussion, questions were raised on how to care for depressive people. The panelists commented after the symposium that open discussion on depression was helpful in deepening understanding and removing prejudice toward the disease.

Among the last to speak, SGI-Australia General Director Greg Johns thanked the panelists, saying, "I treasure each and every one of your experiences. It's a privilege for us to be alive, to really listen to somebody else's experience and value it. That's what allows us to come to some matter of the heart, make a connection with others and really experience what it is to be human."

"Dark to Dawn," currently touring the country, offers alternatives to the conventional belief that depression is only negative and destructive. Panels enable viewers to see individuals with depression as having latent potential to make valuable contributions to society, given the proper support and care.

[Adapted from an SGI-Australia report and an article in the October 19, 2007 issue of the Seikyo Shimbun, Soka Gakkai, Japan; photos are courtesy of SGI-Australia]