Depressed. Feeling down. In the dumps. Bitten by the Black Dog. Beyond Blue.
All the phrases and words above have been associated with depression. I have been thinking about depression for some time, as my brother Jack committed suicide 24 years ago in September 1991, and I have been asking why ever since. I know one major factor: he was suffering from clinical depression. He wasn’t well: he had diabetes, had to leave his job as an airlines baggage handler, and was seeing a doctor, but not for depression. A former US marine, he was 50 years old when he died.
If only I had known, I might have been able to call him from Australia and ask: “Are you okay?” That’s the name of the organisation R U OK? (www.ruok.org.au), founded in 2009 to encourage people to ask that question to help prevent suicide. About 17 years before Jack took his own life, I suffered from depression and couldn’t work out why. I was healthy, had a beautiful wife and baby girl, and a good job with The Australian newspaper. But I had this “black dog” – Winston Churchill’s term for his depression — following me. Fortunately, an excellent psychiatrist, a good friend of my wife, explained what clinical depression was, prescribed anti-depressants, and in a month, I was back to normal (still a crazy journalist, but a happy one!). I would have told Jack I think you’re suffering from depression, you need to tell your doctor and get some medication. But I’m not sure he would have listened.
Thursday September 10 was R U OK? Day in Australia, but it was still being commemorated in the US when this post was published. I often think of Jack. I was also thinking of Lance “Buddy” Franklin (Herald Sun photo above), the Sydney Swans super star who withdrew from the qualifying Australian Football League (AFL) final with Fremantle Saturday September 12 with an “ongoing mental health condition.” The Swans did not describe it as depression, but coach John Longmire said: “Lance is currently being treated for a mental health condition. It is a serious condition that he needs to spend some time away from the football club.” The club denied rumours about Franklin’s condition that were spread on social media, rumours so ridiculous I won’t mention them.
Franklin also suffers from mild epilepsy and suffered a seizure Friday September 4. He was taken to hospital, but discharged later that afternoon. The Swans said the epilepsy was not related to his medical condition and he played on the Saturday night against Gold Coast. In The Sydney Morning Herald, sports writer Andrew Wu says the Swans were advised by the hospital not to play Franklin on Saturday, but the club said specialists told the team doctor Nathan Gibbs he could make the final call. The legendary Swans doctor had treated Buddy for the condition previously and passed him fit to play. http://bit.ly/1ihsYJx
But this story is about depression: Franklin knew he had a mental health problem, and told his club about his condition. Years ago, players like him might have tried to keep it secret. Now sportsmen and women are willing to talk about it. Longmire said: “This is very common across society and across professional sport. Whilst it is a personal issue, plenty of people deal with it and are able to be very successful. It doesn’t hinder them one iota.”
Former Victorian Premier, Hawthorn Club President and BeyondBlue Foundation chairman Jeff Kennett told The Australian how much attitudes have changed in the 15 years since he helped set up BeyondBlue (www.beyondblue.org.au), a national organisation aimed at reducing the impact of depression and suicide: “I don’t know what it is that Buddy is dealing with, but if he has recognised that he has an issue, then he has taken the first step towards recovery. It is sad for Buddy and football in the short term but it is a wonderful illustration of how far we have moved the goalposts in the interest of those who suffer mental illness.” http://bit.ly/1L3ILqi
Kennett also said Franklin’s action and the Swans’ support could save more lives: “It’s not a crime to say you need help and he will probably return to football in a better place than he has been recently.”
I’ve been a member of the Swans since 1982 and the club has been very supportive of their players and created a culture where everyone looks after each other. Model Jesinta Campbell, Franklin’s fianceé, had been on a shoot in Japan for the Nine Network’s Getaway program, but she posted a message on Instagram where she praised this support: “I would like to thank everyone for the support both Bud and I have received over the past few days. This is an extremely challenging time for us and has been for some time now, however it has been made easier by the love, understanding and support we have been given.” http://dailym.ai/1K9JwJf She also denied the rumours on social media.
Former North Melbourne forward Nathan Thompson, who suffered from clinical depression during his career, told SEN radio in Melbourne those who had it tried to hide it: “People in the most are very careful not to let anyone into their private sanctuary, and you become very good at hiding it out of the fear of the outcome, which is having to deal with the reality.”
A key forward for Geelong, Mitch Clark, was walked into the locker rooms by coach Chris Scott, after the player started crying at the end of a match earlier this year. Clark tweeted then: “Depression makes very little sense and rears its head whenever it chooses and unfortunately last night was one of those times. Like I have said I’m nowhere near ‘cured’ and still learning how to best deal with my dark days.” http://bit.ly/1JWbZ66
Those who suffer depression experience many dark days, but with support and treatment, they can get better. But they have to recognise and admit they have the illness. So the simple question, “are you okay?”, may produce a profound answer: “No, I’m not, but I’m doing something about it.”
The AFL community is also getting behind Buddy Franklin in his time of need. Ross Lyon, the coach of Fremantle, reminded us it’s only a game: “Buddy’s personal wellbeing supersedes that of the game. He’s an absolute star, and a great fellow. I really enjoy his company.”
And Jack (pictured above in 1959), I would enjoy your company if you were still with us. We could talk about the day you proposed a toast to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr in the bar across the street from our house in Southwest Philadelphia after a number of regulars started calling the civil rights leader “Martin Luther Coon,” on the first anniversary of his assassination in Memphis.
As I said in a previous post (http://wp.me/p1Ytmx-2B), I was never prouder of Jack than I was that day. And if I asked him then “Are you okay?” I’m sure he would have said: “Damn straight.”
Footnote: When I published this story on my blog and posted it on Facebook and Twitter, I was amazed by the response by friends who told me about their loved ones who had committed suicide. I never knew about the tragedy in their lives, and they didn’t know about mine. But times are changing and depression, it seems, is no longer a taboo subject. Jack’s daughters gave me the blessing to write about his suicide. They were the major reasons I waited so long to tell his story. They both agreed he was now at peace. Jack, it’s my turn to toast you. Semper Fidelis, my dear brother.
UPDATE: Thursday, October 8: Great news about Buddy Franklin. He attended a regular end-of-season meeting with the Sydney Swans yesterday in his first public appearance since his mental health issue was revealed. He looked fine and in good spirits as he attended the meeting accompanied by Jesinta Campbell. Sydney Coach John Longmire told ABC Radio he expected Franklin to join his teammates at pre-season training in early December: “Lance is coming along really well. He’s been getting great support from professionals, which is the way to do it. We’ve been leaving the support network to those professionals as they’re the ones with the most qualifications.”
Depressed. Feeling down. In the dumps. Bitten by the Black Dog. Beyond Blue.