Hounding depression

The Black Dog is an Irish interactive self-help website for men coping with mental distress. It is a confidential, independent, non-judgmental place to browse, let off steam and get support. John Higgins talks to Steven Winder, aka Barry Golightly, co-founder of the website

'I think society is insane to be honest. Mental distress is a symptom of a mentally ill society." According to Steven Winder, the co-founder of the Black Dog website, the pressure and stress that young people in Ireland are under is taking its toll on their mental health.

Steven and his friend, a computer programmer, set up the self-help site back in 2001, after a close relative of his committed suicide. Both had experienced first-hand how depression affects not just those who go through it, but those who care about them as well, and in response they decided to create a site for men who were coping with mental distress. Its name, "the Black Dog", is a traditional code-word for male depression.

Beaumont Hospital computer department, where Steven works, allows him to devote a full day each week to working on the site. At the moment it's getting around 100 hits a day. Initially intended for people who were feeling suicidal, Steven soon realised that suicide is just a symptom of how bad things can get. "The site is directed at anybody who feels freaked out basically", he says.

Steven explains that, although the website is primarily aimed at men, all kinds of people visit, and for very different reasons. Sometimes people just want a little information, or advice on how to help themselves or someone they care about. It has a library of informative texts and a sickbay with lots of health information and the site also features a button with emergency advice for anyone contemplating suicide.

There's a page with links to other supportive and helpful websites for men who suffer from mental distress and it has a very popular online forum. Here people offer each other peer to peer support on any and every issue related to mental health. "And of course you sometimes do get people looking for information on dogs," says Steven with a smile.

"My personal feeling is that a number of things can help people from a wide variety of areas. Depending on the person and depending on the person's situation. We're going for a holistic approach on the website. That means offering people any help we can, from counselling and spiritual advice to physical and dietary information."

Steven doesn't use his real name on the website, instead preferring to be known by one of his pseudonyms. According to Steven, one of the reasons that he doesn't use his real name is that, while they encourage anyone who wants to use their real name to do so, "one of the beauties of the internet is that you can get stuff off your chest and you don't have to identify yourself. People can be anonymous and express themselves when normally they may not feel comfortable doing so." This is particularly true with men, who often find it difficult to ring up and talk to someone in person.

In 2004 (the most recent year for which figures are available) there were 457 deaths from suicide, a figure even higher than the number of people who died in road accidents. Yet while there are high-profile public awareness campaigns to try and get people to drive more carefully, there is still very little discussion about what's causing so many people, especially young men, to decide they no longer want to live. A lot of stigma surrounds the issue, and the roots of the problem are still not being addressed.

"I think it's a sign of our consumer culture that we think there must be easy solutions to complex problems. Advertising teaches us that and it rams it down our throats. So sometimes suicide can seem like an easy solution. Suicidal people often become focused in on that and don't even notice that the person next door actually cares about them and would be devastated. It's not just guilt-tripping. It does devastate the lives of at least five or six people around them. And all problems pass at the end of the day and what is important is helping people and interacting."

A quick browse around the website reveals how important Steven believes communication can be in confronting depression.

"I think one of the problems is that men and women do not have appropriate ways in society to express themselves." One of the features of the website is a tool you can use if you're feeling angry. You write an email and press the button to send it off, but the message gets automatically destroyed afterwards.

"Like I said, it just allows someone to get something off their chest. I believe that anger is actually quite a healthy emotion. Anything that gets bottled up comes out in either depression or aggression," Steven explains. "However it happens, boys seem to feel very ill at ease expressing emotions. It's looked on as a sissy thing to do, and you're supposed to show a stiff upper lip and that kind of thing."

Other factors play into depression as well, such as the abuse of drugs and drinking. Alcohol is a major cause of depression amongst men. "It's a huge factor. It's used as a crutch and part of a culture where drinking is practically the only time when men congregate. Of course it's also a depressant in itself, and an anaesthetic. Many people get involved in fights or self-injury and some even become dependent on it."

Steven emphasises that if you do know somebody that you think may be contemplating suicide, the first thing to do is not to shirk the issue and to let the person know that you are listening to them. It's also very important to try and get them to delay their decision. "I know from talking to people who have gone through it that a lot of people who have contemplated suicide delay the decision and afterwards live perfectly happy lives."

Steven explains what he thinks society can do to tackle depression in the long run. "One of the most important things that can be done, in the future, is that children are given a sense of self-esteem. Also, that we listen to other people.

So much is happening nowadays that people can get isolated very easily. People can get very wrapped up in their work or study or whatever. To make time for people, that's really what's important. When push comes to shove what matters is that people are happy."

?More: You can find the Black Dog at www.theblackdog.net, or if you feel like you would like to talk to somebody in person, you can call the Samaritans on 1850-609090