May 10th 2021
Today is the Annual General Meeting.
Forthcoming Speakers and Events
May 17th Rotary Foundation: Rotarian Delma Sweeney : Transforming the World.
May 24th Dr Nnamdi Elenwoke, RC Barcelona Pedralbes – Covid Review and Contrast.
May 29th XLVI Premio Leonardo da Vinci in Vienna (by video conference).
May 31st John Shackleton” Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions inclusive of Endurance
Jun 7th Public Holiday.
June 14th Senator Alice Mary Higginson will speak on the topic of "Climate and Peace".
June 21st Claire Casey of the Childhood Development Initiative will speak on the topic of
"Restorative Practices in Schools".
Jun 28th Club Assembly.
Jul 5th Presidential Handover
Jul 12th Patrick Hamilton Walsh, former member, speaking from Stockholm.
Jul 19th David Ellis – How Rotary is perceived by the public.
President elect Alexander was in the Chair at our meeting two weeks ago and, for his thought for the day, showed us a brief video entitled “What is Rotary?”
Visitors and Apologies
Last week we had apologies from president Alan, Delma Sweeny, Eamonn Allan, Alan Harrison and Gerry McLarnon. We had one guest, Peter Hallberg from Jönköping in Sweden. There were 23 members in attendance.
Jono Pim gave a special welcome to our guest Peter who he has met in various Euromeetings and who is a fellow train enthusiast.
Rotary Rangers Schedule
Rotary Rangers outings are cancelled until further notice due to Covid19 restrictions.
Hon Secretary’s Announcements
• There were no secretary’s announcements last week.
• PE Alexander reported from the District Council meeting and told us that District had made a profit of €55,00 last year that it planned to disperse. €35,000 would be given to Foundation and pro-rated across the membership so that the Foundation donor history of each member and each club would be adjusted accordingly. The balance of €20,000 is being made available for grants for projects related to Covid. The deadline for applications for these grants is the 15th of May. All that is needed by that date is a brief outline/statement of the proposed project.
• One of the speakers at the conference had talked about micro financing and how tiny loans can have an enormous impact. A case cited was of a woman loaned £15 to buy a sewing machine who was able to use this to make a living. All the loans are repaid; so far there have been no defaults.
Members Wishing to Speak
Frank Bannister told us that Roger Owens had had a fine letter in The Financial Times the preceding Saturday. He noted that there had been a tradition that when somebody appeared in print in any context that they donate €5 to the Charity Fund. PP Ted pointed out that, in that case, the speaker and his son Richard must owe a fortune in back payments. Frank agreed to pass the letter to Hon Sec Tony for circulation to the members.
Speaker Two Weeks Ago
Our guest speaker at our last meeting was introduced by Mary O. James Innis is a Rotarian and a member of the London Number 50 club. He specializes in recruitment and has written a number of business books. Mary said that she was blown away by his website. Today, however, he was not going to talk about business, but about his personal experience of clinical depression.
James confirmed that he was indeed going to talk about his personal experiences and in particular to address the question of what is clinical depression. Last December he had written an article entitled “Bitten by the black dog” for Rotary magazine. The quote comes from Winston Churchill and is widely considered to be a reference to Churchill's own depression. In fact, while Churchill did say it, he was referring to bad news. Since then, however, the phrase had become associated with depression and it is not a bad metaphor. Recently James had come across a song (not a particularly good song he said) by Arlo Parks entitled Black Dog. The lyrics include the following lines:
“It's so cruel what your mind can do for no reason. I take a jump off the fire escape to make the black dog go away.”
In his article he paraphrased some of the comments he gets from friends in reaction to his depression. People often ask him is this “really you?”. They expect him to be the last person to be depressed because he is normally so cheerful and upbeat. He doesn't mind these comments; in a way they are a kind of compliment. But people who say these things do not understand depression and why should they, because unless you have actually experienced it, it is not possible to grasp it. We probably all know somebody who suffers from clinical depression, though many people hide it or try to.
James, for his part, has never hidden his depression, but he hadn’t broadcast it either until relatively recently. Given the rise in depression in the population as a whole being caused by the pandemic, he felt that now was a good time to stand up and talk publicly about this problem. He is not ashamed of the fact that he is a depressive, but having clinical depression is still something of a stigma. He was diagnosed at the age of 20, 25 years ago. (James commented that he looks younger than his current 45 because he is growing his hair long as part of a “grow a wig to aid cancer” campaign). He reminded us that depressives are often good at hiding their condition. As Robin Williams once put it, all it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide what is going on inside. It is well known that comedians are often depressives. He told a story about a person, many years ago, that went to a doctor because he could not eat or sleep. The doctor looked at him, carried out various tests and then told him that there was nothing physically wrong with him. He said that laughter was the best medicine and recommended that his patient go and hear the Great Renaldi, a famous comedian of the time. The patient responded that this was going to be no help. When the doctor asked why, the patient responded, “because I am the great Renaldi”.
There have been many studies of depression that have arisen as a consequence of lockdowns and these have resulted in important findings. One of these is the importance of sociability. James battles his depression on a daily basis and he uses a variety of tools to do this including forcing himself to be upbeat and to try to have fun. Unfortunately this does not work all of the time and sometimes he has bad runs of several really dark days. During these, his wife has to deal with him and, as she is not a depressive, she has no internal experience on which to draw so she can find it hard to cope. Trying to describe depression is difficult even for a wordsmith like James. A void? A black hole? Something that sucks all the happiness and joy out of life? Depression can cause pain that is akin to physical pain. In fact, James said, faced with a choice between real physical pain and the mental pain of depression, he would choose the former any time although his wife says that he hasn't given birth so he knows not of what he speaks.
Turning to what depression actually is, one way of looking at it is as a form of chemical imbalance in the brain. This is a great simplification, although various chemical imbalances including with dopamine, adrenaline and various hormones are associated with clinical depression. For some the condition is lifelong. For others it is episodic. One worrying factor is the impact on mental health of the Covid epidemic which has led to a great deal more depression than is normally found in the population. As a community, we need to be able to respond to this. What people need to understand is that even when one is feeling physically fine and has no problems that are visible, one can still feel unsettled and depressed. The normal background rate of depression in the population is about 10%. Surveys during the pandemic have suggested that it is now as high as 20%.
People who become depressed during the pandemic and/or who are new to this illness usually find it especially hard to cope. They have not developed the weapons and defenses that people like James have developed as a result of his long exposure to the illness. James recommended some guidelines provided by the National Health Service in the UK. They are:
1. Stay connected with others.
2. Talk about your worries.
3. Look after your body. It is easy to get into a vicious circle of physical unfitness and depression.
4 Stay on top of your difficulties. Don't stay glued to your computer or the television or spend all day in bed.
5 Look after your sleep. Sleep effects physical and mental problems from blood pressure to depression. James recalled a conversation with a friend of his who was having sleep problems and did not want to go to his GP about such a “minor” problem. James has a friend who is a GP and he asked him whether a patient coming to him to complain about sleep problems would be a nuisance. The GP said far from it, that sleep problems were often precursors to other illnesses and he was more than willing at any time to talk to somebody about their difficulties sleeping.
6. Keep your mind active.
How can we help people? The first thing is to let them know that you care. The second is to accept them as they are. The third is to gently help them to help themselves. You may be able to get them information about the services that can assist them for example. Most important stay in touch and try to be patient and never, ever under any circumstance tell somebody to “pull themselves together”. Critically, if a depressive expresses suicidal intention they need professional help and immediately. In England this can come from the National Health Service or the Samaritans. Samaritans do not only deal with people who need help they will also talk with people who are trying to help others so you can always call them for advice on what to do. With that he thanked us and invited questions.
President elect Alexander asked how one diagnosed depression. It was easy to detect a broken leg, but not something hidden inside the brain. James replied that there is a spectrum for depression running from feeling a bit down to being deeply depressed and these extremes are quite different things. One way to differentiate them is when somebody is depressed despite everything around them being good. In other words, if everything says to you that somebody should be content or happy, but they are still depressed, that can be a warning sign. Severely depressed people feel empty. They can struggle to get up in the morning. They have no energy. As he noted earlier there is a difference between intermittent depression that lasts for a short period and lifelong depression of the type that he has. Both can be treated medically.
PP Mariandy asked what methods could be used particularly to self-help and what works for him. James said he is a believer in medicine and in psychotherapy and uses both. He takes a “happy pill” every day. He should take more exercise than he does. But he also believes in being open and transparent about one’s problems and above all not being ashamed. Talk about your problems but do not get into self-pity is his recommendation. Share your feelings with loved ones and with friends.
Roger Owens asked about clinical depression. He had a number of friends with this problem and the symptoms were shocking. Sometimes people cannot get out of bed for a week. He wondered if the use of the word “depression” for a variety of different illnesses from the mild to the severe was not helping. Perhaps we should use another word for milder conditions, a word such as “melancholy”. James reiterated that there is an enormous difference between feeling a bit down and clinical depression. The latter can leave you in a virtually catatonic state. He agreed the word “depression” is bandied around loosely. In his case he can be awake, but literally paralyzed for two to three hours - physically unable to move. To get out of this he either has to snap himself out or sometimes his wife has to give him a physical slap. When such physical symptoms occur you have crossed the line from intermittent to clinical depression.
Frank Bannister asked what the relationship is between clinical depression and bipolar disorder He knew nobody that he could think of with clinical depression as described by James, but knew a number of people that were bipolar. James said that bipolar is a subset of depression as an illness. The symptoms were unique to it and consisted of alternating depression and manic behavior. For people with bipolar disorder, medication was essential and lifelong. It is not going to get better or worse as a disease and it can be just as devastating as clinical depression.
PP Derek Griffiths commented that his wife Bernie had worked in the past on the Aware phone line – Aware is an equivalent to the Samaritans. During her training she was told that being depressed was like being in a deep black hole. Is that how James would describe it? James said it was an excellent description. You feel helpless, powerless and even angry that it won't just go away. Being at the bottom of a deep black hole with no light and no way out is an excellent description of the condition.
Rana AlDamin talked briefly about stigma and the importance of helping people by not being judgmental and the importance of not attempting to counsel people when you have no expertise in the area. We are not all at a professional level. The most useful thing we can do is to ask people how they are and take an interest in them. She said that the best place to go when people have suicide intention in Ireland was Pieta House (see below). They will typically see you within 24 hours and if they cannot, they will call. They assess people on a scale of 1 to 10 and then they counsel them face to face until people are well enough to manage with the telephone support. She observed that princes William and Harry had helped to breakdown the stigma by discussing their own problems.
Tom O'Neill wondered was depression hereditary. James said yes and no, but basically yes. It does run in families including his. It's not just about chemistry however, it can be about trauma. Sometimes you may have a proneness to depression, but it may never be triggered unless a traumatic event kicks it off. It's a subtle mixture of effects. Furthermore people may not know that it runs in their family because previous generations simply did not talk about it.
Tony McCourt asked whether there were specific triggers that started depression and about the value of large doses of vitamins C and D in combatting it. James said that there were various triggers including winter and a lack of natural light (though, curiously, not necessarily sunlight). Blood tests had shown that vitamins C and vitamin D sometimes worked and sometimes did not. Nonetheless, it is important to keep the vitamin C and vitamin D levels in your blood at their optimum. Due to limited light in the winter, vitamin D levels are often low in people in northern hemisphere countries like Ireland and England.
Mary O wondered about teenagers who seemed to go in and out of depression and asked James if he had encountered depression as a teenager. James said that depression can start at any age. A lot of young people have been suffering during the pandemic because of being locked in their houses for long periods of time. Clinical depression often shows up in teen years though more typically it emerges in the late teens. James himself was first examined for depression at the age of 14. Alarmingly, up to one third of all suicides from depression occur in the 18- to 24-year age bracket. This is because people at that age do not yet have the mental equipment to cope with the disease. He said that he did not really have many words of wisdom to advise people with teenagers. His children had not arrived at that point yet; he was not particularly looking forward to dealing with them when they did.
Frank Bannister commented that people need to be careful with vitamin D as you can take too much of it and in certain circumstances an overdose can be toxic. He was not aware of any such problem with vitamin C.
Giving the vote of thanks, PP Mariandy said that it had been a fantastic talk. It was valuable to be able to open up a discussion on this most difficult of topics. She had some awareness of this herself and was sympathetic, indeed empathetic, with James. She helped people deal with mild depression using a variety of tools including mindfulness meditation and an appropriate diet. People can be very resilient. It was great to see that James is managing his own depression so well and that he had, despite it, developed a successful career. President elect Alexander thanked James on our behalf.
The following websites may be useful if you, or anybody you know, is suffering from depression. Many of you will be familiar with WebMD. It is a well-regarded source. It has a section on depression at:
As mentioned by Rana, Pieta House specialises in people with thoughts about suicide.
The Samaritans help line is 116 123 (lines open 24/7/365). Their web address is:
General mental health services and support are provided by:
Other useful sites include:
https://jigsaw.ie/depression/ (particularly for younger people).