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/

One Comment

  1. Even in the depths of depression, I never rode the bike into something that would have finished me instantly. The riding is antidepressant.

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