Getting Out of Gaol

A woman with short white hair walks slightly stifflytowards me. Dorothy Rowe was born in 1930, so is 78this year, which is the same age as my mother. But mymother is now in an old people's home suffering severedepression and no longer able to function on a day-to-daybasis without a lot of help.

Dorothy Rowe, on the other hand, has a great zest forlife and, as she talks, her keen sense of humour canbe seen in her eyes and the slight curl of her lips.She is still a working woman, and admits she has nointention of retiring because most of the enjoyableaspects of her life are in connection with her work.Although Australian-born, this psychologist and authorhas been based in England for many years, but is inSydney over the summer staying with her son. It maysound like a holiday, but she explains she is currentlywriting three articles, and has also just signed contractsto write two books.

Having grown up in Newcastle, Dorothy studied psychologyat Sydney University. She followed this up with a Diplomaof Education and taught for a while, before gettingmarried and having a child. She went back to teachingwhen her son was two and, because her degree was inpsychology, was invited to become a school counsellor.Later, while completing her Diploma in Clinical Psychology,she became a specialist counsellor for emotionally disturbedchildren.

It was only when she went to England that she realisedthe North Ryde Children's Unit where she worked wasrun along what were then revolutionary lines. "Thehead of the unit thought you should get to know thechild, and you should consider the child's environment,and not just spend your time trying to stick a labelon the child," she explains.

When Dorothy's marriage broke up, she was completingher Master's at the University of NSW, and correspondingwith one of the leading psychologists in England, MonteShapiro. He suggested that she come to England becauseof the employment opportunities, so she cashed in hersuperannuation and long service leave, and left withher son, Edward.

Based in Sheffield, she did a PhD on the psychologicalaspects of regular mood change while working as a clinicalpsychologist. She found a strong correlation betweenher work and her study as most of her patients weresuffering from depression.

"What I found talking to people, and what I havesubsequently been shown in research studies," sheexplains, "is that you don't become depressed andpsychotic, manic or obsessional, or phobic out of theblue. What always happens is that there has been a crisis,a disaster in your life, which shows you there is aserious discrepancy between what you thought your lifewas, and what it actually is. Sometimes, the disasteris something which observers would agree is a disaster,but as often as not it's a private disaster."

Dorothy Rowe has observed that the commonest discoveryfor depressed people is that no amount of goodness preventsdisaster. She also finds that deeply depressed peoplewho would say they had no particular religious beliefs,often experience all the religious education they receivedin childhood, including sermons on hell and damnation,coming back to them. Often, they have grown up believing,because of what religion has taught them, that if theywere good nothing bad would happen to them or thosethey loved. When something bad does happen it totallythrows them. It means either they are more wicked thanthey thought and this is their punishment for theirwickedness, or that the adults who taught them theylive in a just world are wrong. And that's often evenharder to accept.

So what does Dorothy Rowe recommend with regard todepression? "To recognise that it is a human response,it is not a mental illness, and it is something youcan learn from. What depression is teaching you, ifyou are prepared to learn it, is that you haven't beenliving wisely, and that you need to change."

Depressed people usually don't want to acknowledgewhat has happened in their lives, and psychoanalystAlice Miller describes it as a refusal to mourn. Thismakes huge sense to me because my mother plummeted intoher depression when my father was diagnosed with and,shortly afterwards, died from lung cancer four and ahalf years ago.

If you suffer a loss and spend all your time blamingyourself, telling yourself how wicked you are, explainsDorothy, you are putting off the fact that you havesuffered a loss in your life and need to work throughthe stages of recognising that loss.

When she talks about living wisely she says it meansrealising that you can't force reality to be what youwant it to be, you can't turn the world into what youwant it to be, and that you are not a terribly wickedperson. Neither are you a perfect person, you are justordinary. But, she admits, a lot of depressed peopledon't want to be ordinary.

"Depression can give you a breathing space towork things out. But if you make it your first and onlychoice in responding to a situation, you are not goingto solve any situation, because what you are doing isputting yourself in the centre of the stage."

Dorothy grew up with a mother who suffered depression,although no one in the family circles ever said so.Instead, it was "don't upset Ella".

"That was the family rule, and that made her avery powerful person. Nobody in the extended familywanted to upset her." Dorothy goes onto to recounthow she received no acknowledgement from her motherwhen she sent her a copy of her first book, which shehad dedicated to her parents. Later, her sister toldher that she'd had to point out the dedication to theirmother, and it made her realise that Ella hadn't evenopened the book.

"She didn't give me any support in my career,"Dorothy adds. "She always let it be known she wasdisappointed that I didn't get a job in a bank, whichis so stupid as I couldn't add up. But that was theheight of her ambition."

When I ask her how she dealt with her own mother'sdepression, she confesses one of the advantages of beinga psychologist is that "people tell you all sortsof stories that you would otherwise never hear. Theymight be totally useless in helping the client, butyou learn an awful lot about yourself." She alsoadmits hearing other people talk about their mothersput things in perspective for her, and made her thinkmore kindly towards her own mother.

In 1971, Dorothy completed her PhD and the followingyear set up the Lincolnshire Department of ClinicalPsychology. Her research there established the basisof her first book, "The Experience of Depression"which is now called "Choosing Not Losing"and she has followed it up with 11 others.

Her third book, "Depression: the Way Out of YourPrison" was first published in 1983, and, the followingyear won the Mind Book of the Year Award. Twenty fiveyears later it is now in its third edition, and itsauthor casually mentions that, a very rare occurrencein the world of book publishing, its sales have actuallyincreased over the years.

According to Beyond Blue, the national, not-for-profitorganisation working to address issues associated withdepression, one in five people experiences depressionat some stage in their lives. A report by pharmacistGail Bell documents that over 12 million prescriptionswere written in 2005 in Australia for antidepressants,and today that figure is probably slightly higher. Fullyaware of the agony of mental pain, Dorothy believesthat drugs can help dull the pain so that people havean opportunity to work things out for themselves. But,she adds, some people will not enter into any area ofthinking about their lives and themselves.

She firmly believes that governments should stop regardingdepression as a mental illness and, instead, look atit with regard to certain aspects of life. Marital statusthrows up an interesting conundrum - in this category,the biggest group of depressed people is married women,while the smallest group is married men. In terms offinancial status, it mostly affects those less welloff, who have limited options to seek other alternativesin a difficult situation. "So, if politicians lookat depression in regard to certain aspects of life theyhave to do something about poverty, and they'd haveto do something more than they do about education."

In 2007, Dorothy Rowe was nominated as one of 100 livinggeniuses after a survey was sent to 4,000 Britons askingthem to list 10 living people they considered exceptionalthinkers. In her work, not only does she acknowledgethe pain and anguish that individuals are experiencing,but also empowers them. She has shown us that depressionis not an illness over which there is no control but,rather, an intolerable prison we build for ourselvesout of how we see ourselves and our world, and thatwe can escape this prison by choosing to change theway we interpret our lives.

The difference she has made to the way both cliniciansand their patients regard mental disorders is invaluableand her insights are profound, not only for those sufferingfrom depression, but also for their loved ones. Shehas certainly given me a far greater understanding ofmy mother's depression and some of the factors thathave caused it.