‘I had a black dog, his name was depression’ Wait…is that ok to say?

Illustration by Matthew Johnstone in the WHO video on the black dog

The metaphor ‘black dog’ is commonly used across the world to describe what it is like to have depression. There are countless organisations, articles, publications and campaigns with the metaphor in the spotlight. In the last six months, it has come to my attention though that some people feel this term should no longer be used.

As somebody with lived experience, it is a metaphor I use a lot, especially when referencing the video by the World Health Organisation, which is from author Matthew Johnstone’s book where he speaks about his own experiences with depression.

In June 2020, Mental Health First Aid England, a company that provides training around mental health, removed the black dog video from their courses.

CEO Simon Blake OBE stated “Over the past few weeks I have heard from a number of Black Instructor Members about the use of the Black Dog video on our courses. I have to acknowledge that as a white man (and dog lover) I had not considered the implications of this video. We know throughout history that ‘black’ is so often used in the English language to communicate something negative or as a metaphor associated with negativity, and I have learned in recent weeks that this video of the Black Dog is an extension of this.”

The removal of this video is one that took me by surprise when I found out. The video is one of only two videos that I’ve seen which I feel hit the nail on the head when it comes to my lived experience of depression (the other is The Stand Up Kid).

I am currently writing a book about my depression where I use the metaphor a handful of times. Following the removal of the video by MHFA England I began to think as to whether or not the metaphor is one that is ok to use. After some research, I found two issues surrounding the metaphor. The first is surrounding dogs.

Black dog syndrome

It has been found that black dogs are less likely to be adopted from rescue centres than lighter coloured dogs. This, in turn, leads to more being euthanised. One of the reasons for the lower number of black dogs being adopted is the misconception that black dogs are more likely to be violent; this is not the case. Colour makes no difference to the behaviour of a dog. The same goes for black cats, who are also less likely to be adopted.

Some feel that Winston Churchills references to his ‘black dog’, in this context, his depression, further fuels the negative connotations associated with dogs that are black.

Racism

If you can only remember 2 things that happened in 2020, it will most likely be the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Movement, which became headline news following the murder of George Floyd.

Following George Floyd’s murder, the issues surrounding racism that black people experience have been highlighted a lot more than before. One of these, is around everyday language.

In October 2020, Manchester University carried at a review Supporting the representation and inclusion of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff and students. One of the points outlined in the review was
“Some Black students raised the issue of language that is divisive and not inclusive being used and the student Voice Out report indicated linguistic concerns about Black being associated with negative expressions like • Blacklist and Whitelist (Good without doubt) • Blackmail • Black Sheep • Black Market, etc.”

In this, they gave evidence of the research piece carried out “Blacklists” and “whitelists”: a salutary warning concerning the prevalence of racist language in discussions of predatory publishing.

This got some media attention, with the Telegraph writing a piece on it. Following the Telegraph, there was a response article in Russia Today criticising this.

Manchester students are right in saying that the English language uses the term ‘black’ only in a negative way. Blacklisted, the Black plague and the black economy, to only name four. Of course, a firth one is the ‘black dog’ when talking about depression.

Whilst collecting the views of others on this subject, I gathered a lot of varied views from both those who are not BAME and those who are.

It was brought to my attention that the ‘black dog’ has been used as a racial slur, with one writing “In South Africa…during the apartheid regime it was commonplace to refer to the African populace as dogs and no we didn’t like it”

Dean Frenkel, an Australian writer and communications expert, wrote in a blog in 2017 on this topic “In fact, ‘black dog’ appears to have been used for centuries as a verbal assault by racists toward African Americans, Australian Aboriginals and other native peoples around the world. No spin can erase the stigma of ‘black dog’ from its nasty history.”

Adrian J Basford is a black Mental Health First Aid instructor from the Access Health Therapy in Staffordshire. He writes

“The recent movement to empower ethnic people who are born into the majority Caucasian countries has continued, particularly in the young intellectuals. The use of the colour Black as an extreme negative has been counter productive to self pride in the development of young people. If you need an example, a person discusses on a social media platform a day of depression. They label it I have had a Black Day. The day was sad, poor, feeling of being worthless. And the person reading this is becoming self aware and if lucky and growing in a positive environment is actually taking pride in being described as Black. The negatives they will hear throughout life are a plenty. Some direct Black this, Black that. Later they will hear Negro and Nigger and depending on location and environment may never learn that this also is language for Black. I hope that the young generation are trying to address this and I hope that the reasons for this can be seen as a positive rather than a tabloid horror story which does nothing to help and heal division.”

Basford continued to touch on the subject on where the term ‘black dog’ gained popularity.

The metaphor ‘black dog’ is one that many associate with Winston Churchill.

Churchill was the Prime Minister of the UK from 1940 to 1945 and spoke about his experiences with depression using the metaphor the ‘black dog’. Although the metaphor dates back centuries, it is due to his use that it became a well known metaphor. The problem is, Churchill was not one to be admired.

Basford writes “Churchill who I personally respect was an aristocrat and a racist. Those that quote the black dog which was made famous by his written word are continuing a negative that can be uncomfortable for many.”

Speaking to a variety of people, including people who are BAME, I have gathered very mixed opinions on this. Some say that it’s ok to use, as long as the context is ok and you reference that you are using the metaphor in the context of mental health and that, by using the term, it does not mean you agree with Churchills views.

Others, though, say that it should never be used due to negative racial connotations that the term carries.

We all know that language can cause bias and discrimination but at the same time language evolves over time and some feel that, by removing the metaphor ‘black dog’, it is a set back for those speaking up about their experiences of depression.

One person wrote “If I want to describe my depression as being like a black dog then I shouldn’t be censored if I’m articulating my experience of depression and my experience only. Nothing has better articulated my experience of depression than (the black dog video).”

Whilst unrelated to racism, I have had similar feedback surrounding the term ‘committed suicide’.
The mental health field is steering away from using the term ‘committed suicide’ due to the stigma attached. Suicide hasn’t been a crime in the UK since 1961 but sadly there is still a huge amount of stigma surrounding the subject. One person I spoke to, who’s lost a loved one to suicide, feels that ‘committed suicide’ is the only term that sits right with her when speaking about her family member. She recognises and acknowledges the stigma surrounding the term, but for her it’s the only thing that feels right to say. Others though who’ve been affected by suicide feel very uneasy when the term is used, even if it’s unintentional.
Does it make it wrong for her to say the term? Whilst she means no harm by using the term, it can create harm to those who overhear her.

After receiving very mixed views on this, I am very much still on the fence about it.
I would like to ask you, readers, what your view are on this subject?
Is the ‘black dog’ ok to say in the context of mental health? Or is it time that we, as a society, begin to recognise how our use of the word black can have a negative impact and, therefore, should begin to adapt our language to reduce racism.

Leave your views below

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Comments I have received from this blog

(Anonymous) “I’ve read through your blog and it’s very thorough and balanced. One thought I had was that we use black at a funeral to show sadness. In my eyes, black is a colour associated with sad / bad things, but it has nothing to do with the colour of someone’s skin, it’s black as an abstract not a person. There are lots of cultures where a colour has this meaning, and it’s not always black. I studied international marketing and we looked at colour – there are countries including China, Korea and other Asian countries where white is the colour of death, for example – is that a racial slur on all white people? Just playing devil’s advocate “

(Anonymous) “My little girl is 6 and currently learning about emotions and assigning colours to emotions. Yellow is happy, red is anger and black is sadness.
Dogs follow their owners just like depression. Sounds like a good metaphor to me”

(Anonymous)  “I don’t believe that black dog necessarily has racist connotations. Black or darkness has always been used to symbolise bad things. People can be afraid of the dark, dark clouds bring rain and block out the light. Dogs follow you around. It’s just a way of bringing the two together. But I thought your blog was eloquently written”

Leave your views below

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