Graeme Cowan has been back from the brink and has beaten a severe melancholic depression. Raised in a solid, supportive and loving family, Graeme was always a high achiever and a go-getter on all levels. His parents recall Graeme being natural born leader, excelling in all endeavors. Although very popular and successful he always grounded himself in community-building and charity events. In time Graeme translated his hard drive into a successful career in high-level sales and marketing and then corporate headhunting.
From all outward appearances he was doing well, a loving family with two children and a great job. His inner life became disorganised, fearful, anxious and profoundly depressed. Uncertainty about his career rattled his sleep, he would be wide-awake at 3.30am in the morning staring at the ceiling, not knowing how to reach out and communicate his feelings and struggles. Graeme felt that a man must be on top of things so he fought these feelings and struggled to work despite feeling very drained, the cycle of decline continued.
When you are in the midst of depression, you can’t even remember feeling well, and after a while it just doesn’t seem possible that you will get better.
In Graeme’s darkest hour when his melancholic depression was fierce he attempted suicide, three times in one night with his wife and young daughter sleeping only rooms away.
Graeme contacted Lifeline, an Australian emergency mental health line, in desperation who referred him to a psychologist at a local area health team who suspected he had depression. Graeme needed a referral from a GP to see a psychiatrist.
This next paragraph is word for word from Graeme’s book Back from the Brink. It illustrates a disgraceful medical practice and a blatant disregard for basic duty of care and powerfully reminds us why GP education about basic mental health is vital:
That meeting was truly remarkable and knowing that I know now that doctor was not fit to practice medicine. After I told him my story (including the suicide attempt), he concluded that I wasn’t really depressed, just a bit stressed. He was abusive to the psychologist for having the audacity to suggest I might be suffering from depression. Depressed people were catatonic and clearly I was able to converse. He prescribed some tranquilizers and suggested I cancel the appointment with the psychiatrist.
This shouldn’t have happened. We need all GPs to be a solid frontline in effective mental health treatment.Fortunately Graeme was admitted into a private psychiatric hospital, he quickly got back on his own to feet thanks to some medication. However once back in the pressured environment at work, it led to more unemployment and ongoing bouts of severe depression comprising of suicidal thought and anxiety. Graeme’s marriage dissolved and he moved back in with his parents in Northern NSW. Another suicide attempt ensued and more treatment at private psychiatric facilities. This was a hard battle for him, for such a high flyer to be out of work the stress and anxieties mounted up as well as the guilt, shame and concern about how to actually beat melancholic depression and rebuild his life.
Graeme’s recovery from melancholic depression, like most, was not instant it was steady and involved a lot of hard work and perseverance. A mosaic of different services coupled with Graeme’s own internal convictions and resolutions came together to slowly nudge Graeme’s mood up and up until he was able and functional to be independent again, from that moment on Graeme has learned the art of bouncing back from adversity, it hasn’t come quickly, easily or with any magic bullet, but it has come – much to his own and the communities benefit.
Whilst attending an outpatient course on depression management a focus was on setting weekly goals. Setting goals had been part and parcel for Graeme during career mode; he transferred these skills into his personal domain and took a pragmatic approach to tacking his depression by focusing on smaller achievable goals.
Graeme made the decision to up his exercise from around three days per week to six days per week. He also made the effort to make regular contact with family and friends, something which wasn’t easy. A combination of the upped exercise, human contact and positive effects of medication managed to raise Graeme’s mood from around 2/10 to 5/10 (Graeme has been in habit of scaling his mood which was helpful for him to see improvement and concerned ones knowing when we was entering a high-risk period). A friend recommended Graeme try regular meditation and after attending a course on meditation he made the resolution to practice meditation twice per day. The increased meditation time helped bump his mood levels up to about a 7 or an 8. Graeme also reprioritised his life and created yearly goals for each domain that were broken down into monthly and weekly goals. Sometimes Graeme would still struggle to get out of bed, but still he was able to clearly track his improvement and his mood by reflection on these three goals domains.
- vitality: improved diet, exercise
- intimacy: increased family, friend time, connecting with older friends, attending support groups
- prosperity: donating 10% to mental health charities, goal setting, book writing, contributions to the wider world
During his recovery from melancholic depression Graeme realised he yearned for similar stories of other people who experienced depression, a similar yearning also motivated the creation of How I Beat websites. Depression especially melancholic depression can be a very lonely business at times and it’s common for people who are stuck in deep depression to believe they are the only ones in the world going through this type of experience. While common sense and logic would easily reason otherwise, the problem is when you are stuck in depression logic and common sense don’t come too easily, sometimes they barely turn up at all.
Similar stories can be vital in one’s own recovery, you feel less alone and less disconnected. Graeme decided to be proactive and compile a book covering stories of successful recovery from depression from a cross section of Australia, celebrities, sports stats, politicians and the common folk. In many ways this cross section reminds me of why twelve step programs are so popular and powerful, they, like Graeme’s book provide a melting pot of genuine stories and makes people realise the fact that no one is immune from mental health.
More recently Graeme followed up Back from the Brink with Back from the Brink Too, Helping your loved one overcome depression. Another fantastic book that looks at the critical function of carers for people with depression, most often close friends and family.
Graeme is now in a much happier place and has learned more from adversities than successes. He views his long journey and battle with depression as incredibly formative and valuable. A furnace in which Graeme was able to reprioritise his life. Paradoxically he has never been calmer or more productive. The melancholic depress no longer as a hold on him.
Graeme has a new philosophy on depression: bounce back and thrive. He is a fan of the positive psychology movement, spearheaded and led by acclaimed American psychologist Martin Seligman. A movement arguing that the helping professoins is consumed with negative ideas: disorders, dysfunctions, diseases, and maladjustment. Positive psychology instead focuses on a person’s inherent strengths, skills and resilience and how they can use such to recover properly.
Graeme has leaned on his strengths, resilience and ability during his recovery from melancholic depression. When I hear Graeme’s story: exercise, goal setting and prioritising come to the fore as crucial factors he adjusted into order to balance his life and thrive. Good on him, we thank him for providing information for this site and we wish him all the best in his recovery.
Graeme has used his experience to indeed bounce back and thrive and now is a highly sought after leader, speaker and writer in mental health issues and the workplace.
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