When depression is not just a dip in the road

Steve Andrews Black Dog Ride

English is a curious language. Often there are two or more words that sound the same but are spelt differently and mean different things. Sometimes a word can have two or more meanings, even with the same spelling. At Purnululu National Park in Western Australia (previously The Bungle Bungles), we woke at 6am after what used to be called a three dog night (the dogs get on the bed to keep you warm). We rugged up and went to the camp kitchen where a young German backpacker was making breakfast.
“Chilly this morning,” I said, as you do.
“Sorry? What is this chili?”
I explained that chilly mean cold, brisk, crisp etc.
“No, no – chili is hot. How can chili be cold? That makes no sense.” (Tempted to  start an ESL teacher’s explanation of homophones, but desisted.)
The word “depression” has several different meanings in the language, although most of us would immediately identify with what used to be called melancholia. Its other meanings include: An area sunk below its surroundings; a hollow; a region of low barometric pressure. The word is also used to describe the economic collapse of the early 1930s.
This train of thought picked up speed after we encountered 65 people riding 55 motorbikes around Australia to raise awareness of depression and suicide. Led by Steve Andrews, an organised man on a mission, the Black Dog Ride aims to circumnavigate Australia in 32 days, along the way taking its message to small communities, schools, mining towns and areas of large cities, where Steve says the incidence of depression among young people is serious.

As all sufferers will have found out, many after years of self-medication, depression is a psychiatric disorder characterized by an inability to concentrate, insomnia, loss of appetite and apathy. Sufferers can also have feelings of extreme sadness, guilt, helplessness and hopelessness, and thoughts of death. When you put it like that, a prolonged weather low over the coast isn’t so hard to take.

We caught up with Steve and convoy at the Nanutarra Roadhouse, 293 kms south-west of Tom Price, on Monday. The roadhouse was doing exceptionally well from this scheduled stop, with fuel at $1.94 a litre and a big run on pies, sausage rolls and chips.

The Black Dog Ride left the central coast of New South Wales on July 24 and is scheduled to arrive at Bondi on August 24. Each day these 55 motorbikes, some with sidecars or trailers, rack up between 400 and 800 kilometres. (Quite an ask, says Ed. – we struggle to do more than 300km in a day and we don’t have to worry about keeping our balance.) The charity ride has three support vehicles (sponsored by Holden), and organisers keep in touch via mobile phones provided by Telstra. A film crew is also travelling with the group.

I tracked down Steve, a fit-looking 60 year old whose sunburnt face is showing signs of the constant exposure of riding a 1200cc BMW into the head winds they’ve been experiencing out in the desert.

He says the incidence of depression and the air of hopelessness that goes with it is rife among adolescents in the top end of Australia, particularly among indigenous communities.
“But it’s not just restricted to indigenous communities – it just happens to be worse there.
“We’ll be going to visit schools down south and talk to kids about the importance of looking after your mental health.
“It’s a serious problem among the young kids today and a lot of it is to do with the social media and 24/7 connectivity which is putting a lot of extra pressure on them.”
Steve decided to ride around the country on his own in 2009 to raise awareness of depression and suicide after having personal experiences with family and friends. He posted his itinerary and people gradually started taking an interest, and over time he started to make connections with bike riders all around the country.
“I had the feeling that there were other people that had the interest and the passion that I had and the back story.
“That led me to start what became known as the Black Dog Ride to the Red Centre the following year. We’ve done that ride for four years, with 300 riders last year.
“I thought it was time to do something different this year. I felt like a ride around Australia and thought it would be great to bring members of this Black Dog family along with me. People have it on their bucket list of things to do and support a great cause at the same time.”
Tragically, the Black Dog Ride lost one of its members this week when the WA co-ordinator, Les James, was killed after being involved in an accident with a truck on the highway near Geraldton. He had been about to join the group, who were devastated by the loss, but determined to continue the ride. 9NEWS reporter Simon Bouda, who is on the ride, said Mr James was a devoted family man who had a passion for motorcycling that led him to become involved with the Black Dog Ride.
“This accident has shattered everyone on the ride, there’s no doubt about that,” Mr Bouda said. “But the ride will continue because we feel it should continue as a mark of respect for him and what he believed in, which is starting the conversation about depression.”
As someone who has put up with every kind of black dog there is for many years, I salute these champions of the cause, taking their message to remote Aboriginal (Let’s start using the term First Nations- Ed.) communities like Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing.
As I now only pay $6 a month for my regular maintenance dose of anti-depressants compared to the ‘non-concession’ cost, I’m going to donate the difference every month to the Black Dog Ride. These generous people have raised more than $1.5 million for mental health services. This year half the money is going to Lifeline and Mental Health First Aid. Send these guys some money or at least send this story to someone you know who has an affinity with the subject.
Postscript: We were saddened to hear about the death of brilliant actor/comedian Robin Williams, who reportedly suffered from depression. I have posted a separate piece on my website about this story and the media’s approach to the subject of suicide. http://bobwords.com.au/suicide-and-the-media/

Suicide and the media

Not so long ago suicide was something you rarely read about in the press, due to an informal agreement between the media and the “helping professions” not to overly publicise the how and where aspects of suicide, as it is believed to spark copycat suicides. The advent of online journalism, social media and the 24 hour news cycle has more or less consigned that gentlemen’s agreement to the too-hard basket. The Australian mentioned the word suicide in almost 4,000 articles in the past five years. While not to say all or any of these articles were reports of specific suicides, it means the subject is in the news on a fairly regular basis.
Apart from these instances when someone famous tops themselves (Aussie parlance), the media usually behaves itself and writes about suicide in a restrained way. But when it comes to celebrity suicide, the media feeding frenzy is awful to behold. Whenever someone as well-known as Robin Williams takes his own life, the media cannot ignore it and instead of the coy shorthand (“police say there are no suspicious circumstances”), which is even now used by the ABC or local newspapers, we get a detailed description of where and when, the method used and much speculation about the why of it all.
There is a view that some suicides are newsworthy, and coverage could raise awareness in the community about the need to seek help. But as a report this week in the Sydney Morning Herald observed, going into such detail about the circumstances of Williams’ death, including the means of his suicide, could have a negative impact on vulnerable members of the community. Releasing such detail could increase the likelihood of distressed individuals making similar attempts on their own lives, Lifeline chairman John Brogden said. And there has been a high degree of criticism on social media about the media’s careless reporting of the Williams’ death. A family spokesperson said that saying it was a suicide ought to have been enough.
Suicide remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44. The Australian Bureau of Statistics Causes of Death, 2012, reported deaths due to suicide at 2,535. Men accounted for three out of every five deaths. The suicide rate was 2.5 times higher for those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent.
But despite colourful claims in the media that suicide is “out of control”, the incidence remains in a band of between 9 and 11 people per 100,000. (By comparison, in 1963 the incidence of suicide was 17.5 in every 100,000 people and has never been surpassed).
Whatever the actual rate, it is a needless waste of life in any event. As the ABS observes, these preventable deaths point to individuals who may be less connected to support networks, less inclined to seek help or less intimately connected to people who might otherwise be aware of problems.
Whether the incidence of suicide is declining (and data from the past decade suggests it is), this is a notoriously difficult field for statisticians and one is advised that interpreting this data can be misleading. The fact remains that 1901 males and 634 females took their own lives in 2012. In the prosperous, first-world country that is Australian in 2014, we need to do more work on figuring out why.

The Pilbara – a Google-free zone

Kalamina Gorge – Karajini National Park
Pilbara wide load

When I started this weekly essay three months ago, I was aware that from late June it would tend to have the flavour of a travelogue, given that we were about to set off on a three-month expedition across remote parts of this magnificent land. Now at the half-way point, coming to the end of a three-day stop at a bush camp in Karajini National Park, I’m doing it the old-fashioned way: who, what, where, when and why, the basics salted with philosophical musings about why the world is the way it is. My writing method is to start with an idea or a theme and cross over to the Internet when I want to find out stuff or check facts. We have all become so dependent on Google and other Internet search engines (yes, there are others), and what is (at present) a free service. It is like someone taking a 99-year lease over your memory and maybe someday making you pay when you want to remember things.
Here at Karajini National Park in Dales Gorge (known in local dialect as Nyingbungwana) campground, we have neither power nor mobile signal and only enough water to last us until we get to Tom Price on Friday. There are people here who have satellite dishes sitting outside their caravans, so I guess if you could be bothered you could find out what’s going on in the world. Last time we heard a radio news bulletin it began with reports on three separate murders in WA and then went on to talk about a sex offender who had breached release conditions by being around teenagers (he was fined $1000).
So now, in this remote part of the Pilbara, I can imagine how it might have been for the monkish scribes of yore, scratching away with a quill pen on the most rudimentary parchment; or for our original inhabitants, painting their handed-down stories on rock walls.
So I’m hammering away at my laptop in the shade of a Cypress tree, aiming to keep on writing until Windows 7 warns me to plug in to a power source or risk losing work that has not been saved.
If that happens, I will revert to pencil and notebook. If it’s good enough for David Malouf, it should be OK for me.
Meanwhile the tree under which I sit interrupts to admonish me for calling it a Cypress.
“I’m a bloody Mulga, you ignorant tourist. Your botanists named me Acacia aneura – you’d think they might have asked the local aborigines if we had a name.”
“Oh, you mean like Mount Nameless,” I say (biggest mountain in these parts). “I’m told the local name for that is Jarndunmunha.”
“That’s outstanding,” says the Mulga, shaking his branches in excitement. “You’re spot on, even if your pronunciation is shite.”
Just then She Who Has Gorn Orf Newspapers puts her cool palm on my clammy forehead.
“You need to drink more water,” she advises.
Shade is good out here in Karajini. While the temperatures are nothing like they were in the Kimberley, it is still hot and dry and those keen on bushwalking are warned to drink a litre of water for every hour of walking. We had just returned from a day of two-hour hikes down gorges to waterfalls and back, some of it in the middle of the day, which might explain the talking bush.
Wednesday our walks took us along the rim of Dales Gorge and then to the steep descent into the gorge, where walkers can either hike to Circular Pool or have a swim under Fortescue Falls. Or you can go further on to the Fern Pool (Jubula), a beautifully serene place of significance for local Aborigines.

Once the party of people from South Australia who were talking about AFL moved on, it was indeed a special place with its cobalt blue waters and bright green ferns growing around the base of ancient native fig trees, clinging tenaciously to the rock face.
One’s sense of place and awareness of the spiritual nuances of the land becomes finely tuned when sitting in the midst of Western Australia’s second biggest national park. If I had the Internet I could tell you which one is the biggest. Maybe you already know?
We came here from Port Hedland, a strangely fascinating industrial town, dominated by the iron ore shipped out on giant ore carriers every day of the week. Every day except Monday August 4, apparently.
The Information Centre, the Museum, and every shop was closed and all pubs bar one were closed for Port Hedland Cup day. We wandered around the deserted town, following the self-guided interpretive walk. It was a quiet day in port too, with only a couple of ore carriers moored in the harbour, but at least a dozen sitting way out on the horizon.
So we pressed on, after making sure we had enough good water to last four days, to the ancient gorge country 263kms south-west of Port Hedland. The road to Karajini is between Port Hedland and the major mining towns of Newman and Tom Price, so road trains are frequent, as are wide loads.
We have no idea what the equipment is or where it was going, but we were happy to leave it parked at a roadside rest area while we went on ahead.
Karajini National Park was declared in 1969 (it was then called Hamersley National Park), but it part of it was excised in 1986 to allow a new mine to start operations. There is a constant clash of values out here, between the needs of conservationists, tourists and miners. The traditional owners have a lot of say in how the park is managed today, but the prospect of more mining in the park is ever-present.
Karajini’s majestic scenery was brought about when massive rivers gouged away at the mountains over millions of years, creating distinctive gorge walls – layers of iron ore-laden sedimentary rock. The gorges are particularly special at sunset when the rock walls turn molten red. No comparison to the Grand Canyon, as it is hardly commercialised at all. The only public communication is limited to one card-operated public telephone.
So, now we’re in Tom Price, having done the mine tour (“know your enemy” –Ed) to pick up some WIFI and send this out. And we still don’t know who won the Port Hedland Cup.




Other People’s Dunnies

Dunny near DerbySo I’m standing in front of a smeary mirror in an outback caravan park washroom having a shave when this old bloke walks in.
“Owya goin?
“Great thanks,” (continue shaving while Old Bloke goes into a cubicle nearby).
“Whereyaheadin?” says the voice from behind the door (rustling of clothing and clang of belt buckle as pants hit floor).
“Goin’ to Katherine then headin’ west to Broome,” I say, going with the flow of outback caravan park talk.
The conversation continues, punctuated with a few strained noises, the kind of which we all unconsciously make at one time or another in such circumstances. I nick my face, distracted by this curiously intimate dialogue and the steam on the mirror. Old Bloke finishes his ablutions and (good thing) washes his hands.
“Safe travelling then,” he says, disappearing into the starry night.
When you set out in a 12-foot caravan to ply the highways and byways of this vast land with nothing save the Thunder Down Under portable loo, it is a given that you will end up using other people’s dunnies. For my non-Aussie readers, dunny is Aussie for toilet (or WC, Washroom, Bathroom etc)
This bush toilet (top photo) at a roadside rest stop just before the turn off to Derby in the western Kimberley, is a good example of what we call “the long drop”. At Karlu Karlu (Devil’s Marbles) in the Northern Territory, National Parks provide a number of these unplumbed toilets at the unpowered camp ground. Each is a fair distance away from the camp ground.
If you go at night and switch off your torch when you get there, the night sky lights up with panoply of stars, the likes of which city dwellers rarely get to see. A torch is an essential piece of equipment when traversing even a short stretch of desert at night. Shoes are a good idea too. And when venturing outback and using these sorts of facilities, it is a sound idea to take your own preferred brand of toilet paper with you, as often there will be none, or worse, those small boxes with 200 wafer thin tissues (17.5mm by 11.5mm in case you were wondering).
This brings me to a persistent urban myth out here in caravan park land. Grey Nomads, we keep hearing, steal toilet paper. Yes they do, one woman insisted. They take their battery-powered drills into the loos, dismantle the dispensers and liberate the rolls. If author and folklorist Bill Scott were still around I’d ask him if he’d heard of that one (Bill wrote a book about urban myths called ‘ Pelicans and Chihuahuas and Other Urban Legends’).
I’m sure the loo roll-stealing granny is an urban myth (a fictional story re-told so often it assumes veracity). I mean, if you can afford a 30-foot caravan and a V8 truck to tow it, why would you flog $2 worth of toilet paper? That would be a selfish and tight-arse thing to do. (tight-arse being Aussie for cheap, overly thrifty, etc).
One of the joys of getting to use other people’s dunnies is that you get to collect examples of over-zealous sign-writing. The most common ones in washrooms and public loos are reminders about flushing, what not to put down the toilet and instructions on how to use toilet brush (and when). Some are ambiguous: “Please flush” and underneath “Water is scarce – be considerate.” Some are poetic: “Even if you’re in a rush, don’t forget to flush.” (and a coy reminder to flush twice to get rid of the evidence).
The inside walls and doors of some dunnies are festooned with philosophical and sometimes unprintable remarks from fellow travellers, some of whom one might guess are sorely disaffected. In 2014, with a mean-spirited Tory government beating up the poor as if it were their fault, a theme is developing: “Retiree bludgers with $100,000 fifth wheelers ripping off social security,” reads one. “Stop grey nomad welfare cheats,” says another. A socialist scholar urges us to “Subvert the dominant paradigm.” “Frankie and Donna were in this stinky toilet,” reads another.
Those Grey Nomads who travel all the time and have their own amenities have one pressing need when they come to civilisation: they need some place to empty their chemical toilet cartridges. Some towns provide a dump point, which is like a public septic tank. The oddest sight I’d seen for a while was in Emerald, where we’d stopped to admire the giant Van Gogh replica painting in the park. Four large caravans, each towed by a $70,000 4WD, drew up to the kerb one after the other. From these vans emerged men of retirement age, each carrying a long heavy metal box. They proceeded in convoy to the public dump point, rid themselves of the week’s takings and returned to their vans, having also had their exercise for the day. Did they stop to admire the scenery? Nuh.
In bigger towns which get swamped with backpackers and other travellers, it is not so easy to find a public toilet. Increasingly, service stations, libraries, information centres and cafes are keeping the keys behind the counter, in a bid to keep out the riff-raff. In Katherine, a sizeable town in the Northern Territory, a local shopping centre provoked some outrage and claims of racial bias last year after hiring a security guard to police the toilets and ask for a $2 “donation”. “That’s un-Australian,” I protested, as we went to the information centre instead. I often wonder what Riff and Raff think about being denied a basic human right.
Hi-tech dunnyTown Councils are increasingly installing smart toilets to help combat instances of people vandalising toilets or using them as meeting places for purposes nefarious. So far we have found dunnies like this one in Alice Springs, also in Armidale and Hall’s Creek.
When you press the green button, the door slides open then closes with a metallic swish.
“Door larked,” says a metallic voice in an American accent. “You have 10 minutes before the door will un-lark. ” Well thanks for that – now I can’t remember why I came in here in the first place. Ah, right, the curry.
“Door will open in one minute 30 seconds…”