Depression or “Black Dog”

Depression or “Black Dog”

What is the truth about Churchill suf­fer­ing from depres­sion, which he referred to as his “black dog”? —A.L. Kansas

Churchill him­self makes a few ear­ly men­tions of his “black dog,” but the expres­sion is much old­er than he was. It was fre­quent­ly used by Vic­to­ri­an nan­nies, like Churchill’s Mrs. Ever­est, when their charges were in a dark mood. One ref­er­ence dates it to Boswell’s Life of John­son. Vis­it the Churchill Cen­tre search engine and enter “Black Dog”; you will be led to numer­ous illu­mi­nat­ing ref­er­ences. The first one is by his daugh­ter Lady Soames, who I think has it right:

A lot has been made of the depres­sive side of his char­ac­ter by psy­chi­a­trists who were nev­er in the same room with him. He him­self talks of his black dog, and he did have times of great depres­sion; but in my opin­ion, mar­riage to my moth­er, and lat­er his dis­cov­ery of paint­ing, which was a life­long solace, large­ly ken­nelled the “black dog.” Of course, if you have a “black dog” it lurks some­where in your nature and you nev­er quite ban­ish it; but I nev­er saw him dis­armed by depres­sion. I’m not talk­ing about the depres­sion of his much lat­er years, because sure­ly that is a sad fea­ture of old age which afflicts a great many peo­ple who have led a very active life.

She was refer­ring in par­tic­u­lar to psy­chi­a­trist Antho­ny Storr’s chap­ter in Churchill: Four Faces an d the Man, who made far too much of it. She told me once that any­body who was not depressed over some of the events ear­ly in the two World Wars would not have been normal.

From Mary Soames, Speak­ing for Them­selves: The Per­son­al Let­ters of Win­ston and Clemen­tine Churchill (Lon­don: Dou­ble­day, 1988) page 53, WSC to CSC, Home Office, 11 July 1911:

Alice [Guest] inter­est­ed me a great deal in her talk about her doc­tor in Ger­many, who com­plete­ly cured her depres­sion. I think this man might be use­ful to me—if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now—It is such a relief. All the colours came back into the pic­ture. Bright­est of all your dear face—my Darling…

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