Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Depression website helps to banish the blues

Many who log in to depression.org.nz end up no longer feeling miserable.

Malcolm Dixon, Magdel Hammond, Ainslie Gee and David Watson have all suffered from depression. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Malcolm Dixon, Magdel Hammond, Ainslie Gee and David Watson have all suffered from depression. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Almost three-quarters of the depressed New Zealanders who have gone to Sir John Kirwan's website depression.org.nz are no longer depressed after finishing the six lessons the site offers.

Public health officials say the result makes the website, and the $5 million-a-year advertising campaign around it, one of the New Zealand's most successful public health campaigns.

Former Auckland University psychiatrist Simon Hatcher, who helped design the lessons and is now a professor at Ottawa University in Canada, said there was nothing like it in North America.

"I think it puts New Zealand ahead of other countries, in that people now have access online to something that is specific for New Zealanders and seems to help people with mild to moderate depression."

He said Sir John's role was unique in the world.

"Just being able to unify people around a well-known person is unique. Other celebrities in other countries don't work because they can sometimes be divisive rather than unifying.

"I have talked about it in North America, about whether there would be anyone equivalent, and no one can give me a name."

The six lessons, called The Journal and which Sir John fronts, take a problem-solving approach to depression. They started in June 2010 and by October this year, just over 1.3 million people had looked at the site and 40,000 were registered as users.

An evaluation by Phoenix Research found that 41 per cent of the first 13,000 registered users did not do any of the lessons.

About 59 per cent completed the first lesson, 26 per cent did the second lesson and only 3 per cent (392 people) completed all six lessons.

Seven-eighths (87 per cent) of the users were classified as depressed when they registered, based on their answers to an online checklist.

But 48 per cent of those who started depressed and completed the second lesson were no longer depressed, and 71 per cent of those who started depressed and completed all six lessons were no longer depressed.

The evaluation said other research suggested only 10 to 15 per cent would have stopped being depressed anyway.

The website appeals particularly to middle-aged women of European ethnicity.

Women are twice as likely to experience severe depression as men, but they are three times as likely as men to use The Journal - 75 per cent of users are women.

Three-fifths (61 per cent) of users are aged 30 to 54, and 93 per cent are of European/other ethnicity, compared with 13 per cent who are Maori, 5 per cent Pacific and 2 per cent Asian (people could choose multiple ethnicities).

The very low Asian figure may partly explain a below-average take-up in Auckland.

People who register with The Journal receive "personal" emails from John Kirwan and many users told the evaluators that Sir John "really made me feel he cared about me".

But a few people said The Journal was targeted towards "white middle-class achievers" and did not appeal to others.

Health Promotion Agency mental health manager Hannah Booth said the system would be made more flexible early next year.

Family doctors have been sent a kit to help them support their patients through The Journal.

Malcolm Dixon

"These pills don't cure me. Only God can."

That's what Malcolm Dixon once told his family doctor during a fight with depression that has spanned decades.

Mr Dixon, now 67, first had depression when he moved into Auckland from Helensville as a young man. He recovered then by joining a choir.

He trained as a laboratory technician and worked for 24 years at National Women's Hospital. He was married with two children. Then at age 43 he "crashed" through plain exhaustion.

"One of the things I had trouble with was being a perfectionist. When I crashed, I wasn't eating properly or sleeping properly or taking proper meal breaks, and I didn't have time to unwind before getting home," he said.

"I finally crashed. I walked out mid-shift."

His doctor put him into the old Carrington Psychiatric Hospital.

"They were trying a whole lot of medications. It wasn't working because I was so depressed."

But his wife stood by him, though "it was hard for her". He became involved in Grow, a 12-step programme adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous. He went back to work, but in fast-food jobs and then in Christian ministries for the disabled.

"My whole life's journey has been changed radically by being invited to be part of an uplift group of people who have been through mental illness, through Greenlane Christian Centre."

Magdel Hammond

Coming to New Zealand after years of silent depression in southern Africa was "mind-blowing" for 51-year-old Magdel Hammond.

"In South Africa there is a sense that if it's not perfect it's not worth having, so if you're not perfect you're not worth having," she said.

"There is a very different attitude to mental health and addictions, very Calvinistic. It's all hush-hush, we keep this inside our family.

"So coming here [in 2002] was just mind-blowing - to have people being supported in the community, living with their experiences, trying to get jobs and that's okay.

"We are light years ahead of some aspects of South Africa; there are not things like we have here to speak about it."

Mrs Hammond, who has worked as a social worker and in human resources, has had epilepsy since her 20s, and became depressed when she went to Namibia with her husband, a diamond geologist.

"I was in a small town with two babies under 18 months. I had no friends. I had had to give up my work in a big city to follow my husband," she said.

"One day I was sitting in the doctor's rooms where I had taken my son for an ear problem, and I read this article listing 17 signs of depression. There were 15 I could tick off."

Her doctor referred her to a psychiatrist in Cape Town.

"The turning point was starting exercising. I exercised five to seven times a week quite intensively," she said.

She is now general manager of peer support for the North Shore agency Connect Supporting Recovery.

Ainslie Gee

A visit from her brother was the turning point when Ainslie Gee felt her life was falling "out of control" in Melbourne last year.

Now 38, Ms Gee has had a successful career in social services. But in Melbourne she was taking on a new job in a new city.

"I was living alone, I didn't know many people, I was out of my comfort zone, I was working in a job that was fairly unfamiliar and that I was a bit nervous about," she said. "I reasonably quickly plummeted."

She suffered from epilepsy and made it worse by drowning her anxiety in alcohol. She lost her job.

"It was just a black hole," she said. "I hid in my house alone for days and I cried a lot.

"Then my brother in New Zealand got wind of it, and within 24 hours he was in Melbourne. He turned up out of the blue and said, 'I'm here,' and so I went and hung out with him. He didn't probe. He said, 'Are you all right?'

"I hung out with him for a couple of days. That was a bit of a turning point because what I realised was that there were people who loved me and were prepared to go out of their way for me."

She returned to Auckland a few months later. At first she kept "hiding" in a friend's house.

She now manages the mental health consumer agency Changing Minds and lives with others.

"I don't live alone," she said. "I think it's very good for me to be with people."

David Watson

David Watson was prepared to die when his mother gave him a copy of John Kirwan's book All Blacks Don't Cry.

It was 4 years ago. Mr Watson, now 34, felt he had lived his whole life as a lie. "I created an alternative version of myself for my friends. I was the life of the party, really humorous and fun and the person to be around," he said.

"But at home on my own I was struggling to look in the mirror. Severe depression set in. I would go out and be the life of the party and go home and bawl my eyes out."

He went on to a sickness benefit. His wife left with their two sons. His thoughts turned to suicide. '

'The brain decides your children are better off without a deadbeat dad that sucks at life," he said.

Then his mother gave him Kirwan's book and he started reading it.

"It talked about things I hadn't given much thought to, the idea that someone might have all the tools in their own life to combat warning signs," he said.

"There is an inferiority complex - this can only be happening to me because I'm less than other people. And all of a sudden, an All Black, and all of a sudden it's just a completely level playing field, because as far as New Zealand culture is concerned All Blacks are fire-throwing, cloud-dwelling giants.

"The timing was incredible with his book because I pretty much just postponed suicide to read it."

He learned to do things he enjoys, such as swimming.

He found a job, part-time at first and then fulltime. He found a new partner, and gradually "rebooted the computer" of his life.

Depression numbers

1 in every 5 women and one in every nine men experience clinical depression in their lifetime - that's about 720,000 people

1.3 million unique visitors clicked on depression.org.nz between June 2010 and last October 2013..

40,000 people have registered with The Journal, a series of six lessons on the website to get through depression.

71% of those who completed all six lessons were no longer depressed by the time they finished.

- NZ Herald

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