What Is The "Black Dog"? Depression And The Role It Plays

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 12/31/2020

A black dog's image has been an omen for danger, death, or illness for a long time. While the image of a black dog may immediately conjure the thought of the grim or may inspire the thought of death, a black dog has been used to signify far more than death; a black dog has also been used to denote the presence of despair. Despair is one of the many feelings associated with depression and is based on the link between depression and “the black dog.”

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Depression: The Basics

Depression is the term used to describe depressive disorders as a whole, which all possess the same basic symptoms, with varying severity levels. Depression can have a single, distinct catalyst, or it may come on gradually, without a definitive starting point or trigger. Depression is among the most common mental disorders, with an estimated 7-10% of the population having experienced symptoms of depression at some time in their lives. Because depression is among the most common mental disorders in existence, it is also one of the most thoroughly studied and most commonly treated.

Depression: Most Common Signs And Symptoms

Although everyone is capable of experiencing depressed feelings, receiving a diagnosis of depression involves experiencing the symptoms of depression consistently for two weeks, at minimum, up to two years. Depression must be present over the long term in order for a clinical diagnosis to be available, because depressed mood is to be expected at some point in life, particularly after a difficult transition, intense loss, or unexpected change. People may experience a period of depression after a loved one’s death, for instance, which may not necessitate a depression diagnosis, while someone who has never quite “bounced back” from a sudden loss, even after two years, may qualify for a depression diagnosis. The most common symptoms of depression include:

  • In depression, people may consistently feel hopeless, as though there is nothing to look forward to, or nothing that can make life worth living.
  • Feeling guilty or worthless. Depression is often accompanied by feelings of guilt or worthlessness, both of which can be driven by the idea that you are a burden because of your depression.
  • Persistent irritability. People with depression often feel as though they are constantly on edge, and may react to seemingly innocuous things with extreme anger or irritability.
  • Sleep changes. People with depression may experience an increased need for sleep, and may seem to be constantly fatigued. People may also find themselves unable to sleep, and may experience periods of intense insomnia.
  • Appetite and weight changes. Depression is often at the root of increased or decreased appetite, which can result in increased or decreased weight. People exhibiting depression symptoms might find themselves feeling ravenously hungry and, between a loss of energy and an increased desire for food, may gain a large amount of weight in a short amount of time. On the other hand, someone with depression may feel as though they cannot eat, and lose weight as a consequence.
  • Behavioral changes. People with depression may begin speaking more slowly, may struggle to concentrate, and may begin withdrawing socially. All of these behavioral changes can signal loved ones that something is amiss.
  • Impaired cognition. Depression can cause difficulty concentrating or focusing, and can impair decision-making abilities.
  • Suicidal ideation. In what is perhaps one of the best-known symptoms of depression, people with the disorder might find themselves thinking about suicide, whether that means thinking about it almost from a distance, or thinking about the best way to go about it. In either case, this particular symptom warrants an emergency intervention.

Physical aches and tension. This particular symptom often goes unnoticed or unreported, but depression can actually lead to physical manifestations, including physical aches (chronic back aches, or constantly upset stomach) and constant feelings of tension in the shoulders, jaw, or neck.

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Although not everyone with depression will experience each and every one of these symptoms, depression requires that at least 3-5 of these symptoms present themselves consistently for two or more weeks. Clinicians rely heavily on self-reported symptoms to deliver a depression diagnosis, so knowing whether or not the above symptoms have been bothering you can be a key component to receiving a diagnosis. Online depression tests can help determine the likelihood of some of these symptoms being present, and pointing to depression.

What Is the “Black Dog”? The Origin Of The Black Dog In Depression

The use of a black dog in describing depression originated with the poet Horace, was further popularized by Winston Churchill, and is more commonly known because of the original short written by Matthew Johnstone, a writer and illustrator who suffers from depression. Johnstone partnered with the World Health Organization to create the piece, titled “I had a black dog. His name was depression.” The piece was designed to describe the effects of depression for people who are not familiar with its symptoms, and was created with the goal of increasing depression awareness.

The video utilizes the metaphor of living with a black dog to describe how thoroughly an individual’s life is affected by depression. Placing a dog firmly on a kite string that is then unable to fly, and on the body of sunglasses while a man is out and about both illustrate the many ways in which depression is capable of hijacking simple, everyday experiences, and rendering them heavy, difficult, and painful.

Describing depression as a black dog is useful, because it provides a visual for people both with and without depression to hold onto. The nature of depression is difficult, partly in that it is mostly feeling-based, and may not have any tangible, easily identifiable signs to point to, in order to say “See? That’s why I have been behaving/feeling/thinking the way that I have.” Instead, depression is locked inside a person’s body, mind, and emotions, identifying depression symptoms and getting them out difficult. Using the depression “black dog” metaphor gives a solid, visible cue for these feelings, and can help people with depression more thoroughly and effectively name, verbalize, and communicate their own experience of depression.

Chasing Away The Black Dog

“Chasing away” the black dog involves pursuing consistent treatment, whether that comes in the form of therapy, medication, or both. Treating depression typically comes in the form of a two-pronged approach, utilizing both talk therapy (also called “psychotherapy”) and medication, in order to treat depression from both angles: the angle of biological shifts that contribute to depression, and that of cognitive development that lends itself to depressive symptoms. Chasing away the black dog is often a collaborative effort, rather than a solo endeavor, or one that is completed without the assistance of a team (however small) of professionals.

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In therapy, chasing away the black dog typically means engaging in some form of regular counseling or psychotherapy. In therapy for depression, therapists and patients often work together to uncover some of the underlying reasons for depression, and create strategies to cope with the symptoms of depression. These strategies can include journaling, grounding exercises, or even just different ways to get moving, in order to break up some of the feelings associated with depression, and the numerous ways in which those feelings can stilt or halt behavior.

Chasing away the black dog via medication is typically achieved via antidepressants. Antidepressants are designed to smooth over the hopeless, restless feelings associated with depression. There are many different types of antidepressant medication, and they can be tailored to treat symptoms of depression and the many forms they take on. For instance, some might tackle depression and sleep issues, while others might focus on depression and anxiety symptoms. In any case, though, antidepressants are only given while under the care of a qualified mental health professional, because symptoms may worsen before leveling out, and finding the right dosage for an individual’s needs can take some time.

Living With The Black Dog Of Depression

Depression is a long-term condition. Although it might not be a lifelong condition for everyone, depression that goes untreated can have very real and intense consequences, not the least of which is the presence of a perpetual cloud of despair, exhaustion, and apathy. Living with the “black dog” of depression is painful and difficult, and can be isolating if you are not actively engaging in therapy, and in some way in contact with or in community with people who have been where you are—or, at the very least—nearby. Living with the black dog of depression typically means treating the black dog of depression, in whatever way best suits an individual’s needs, including talk therapy, medication, and even alternative treatment methods.

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Living with depression can feel as though you are being haunted by a “black dog” who saps all energy, joy, and purpose from your life. The black dog can usurp the light in your life, absorbing all of it until it appears that there is nothing left, it can tug on the hands of people with depression, until they feel like they cannot get away, or it can linger at the edges of their vision, making them constantly feel wary, uncertain, and on edge. Although living with the black dog of depression can feel overwhelming and impossible to overcome, the black dog need not be regarded with fear or contempt, but can instead be addressed as frequently or infrequently as needed.