Depression

Reporter: David Richardson

She had a successful television career, a loving fiancé, stunning good looks and a bubbly personality. But she harboured a dark secret even those closest to her didn't know. 29 year old Charmaine Dragun was suffering depression. Her battle fought in private, often in silence. Her mum Estelle the only person to see the warning signs, to know her daughter's inner pain.

"She did tell me that day, mum for the first time I have thought of suicide. She did not go into any detail, just that for the first time I am feeling very very low. and I never really thought much more about it" says Estelle. Even her fiance Simon didn't know how much Charmaine was hurting until in November last year, she drove to the Gap, a notorious cliff in Sydney, and took her own life. "I had no indication that she could ever do anything like this. I had absolutely no idea. I could not see it coming" said Simon.

It's a condition that holds no favours. It can hit anyone at anytime in their lives. Some of entertainment's biggest names, John Cleese, Paul Hester, the blue wiggle Anthony Field and Garry McDonald, have all suffered from depression. A condition nick named "the black dog."

"The pain can be so intense and the illness so overwhelming that for some people the only relief they can see is to take their own lives." Former West Australian Premer Geoff Gallop shocked his state and the country when he suddenly quit his job and admitted he had been bitten by the 'black dog'.

"Depression can find it's way into the lives of anyone, no matter what their profession, no matter what their background, occupation." Now a university lecturer, Geoff Gallop has got his life back in order and he's one of a growing number of high profile depression survivors to come forward.

"Most of us, particularly macho males, we don't want to own up to our weakness which we think that is a weakness. That there's a stigma about mental illness anyway." Olympic champion John Konrads suffered in silence for 30 years. It took a mountain of guts to go public with his illness - bi-polar depression. "We think it's our fault that we're not the life of the party anymore. We think it's our fault that we're not in a good mood for other people to enjoy and we feel very guilty about that and to get rid of that guilt is a huge weight off a depressive's shoulders."

The figures are staggering. One in every 5 Australians will at some time suffer depression. Numbers are growing, especially for bi-polar or what we used to call manic depression and left untreated it can be a killer. This is one of the new ways to treat depression. It's called trans-crannial magnetic stimulation or TMS.

"It's using a very strong magnetic field to stimulate the brain to increase of change activity in the brain." Psychiatrist Professor Colleen Loo is conducting a clinical trial on TMS and depression. So far the use of small shocks appears to work. The strength of the magnetic pulse depends on the severity of the depression, each treatment lasts 20 to 30 minutes but it's not for every black dog sufferer.

"The main concern is the risk of having a seizure with TMS. It is very, very rare but some people are more prone than others. For example if you already have epilepsy then you would be more at risk of having a seizure" explains Prof Loo. Professor Gordon Parker is from the Black Dog Institute, a purpose built depression clinic and research centre. He believes celebrities "coming out" about their depression has encouraged others to admit their problems - saving lives.

"As a clinician the mood disorders that we're seeing are of such majesty that they stop people getting to work. They stop them if they get to work of being able to work. They cause people to drink more, they cause them to stop eating" explains Prof Parker. The Black Dog Institute is also experimenting with small charges of electricity for treating severe depression.

Prof Loo says "I think we are improving all the time in our ability to diagnose depression and to match the treatment to the patient. Individual matching is very important. I am hopeful that we will become better and better at that, so that there should be nobody with an untreatable depression." Charmaine Dragun's tragic death is still being investigated. Her family hoping her death can still have some meaning - some purpose.

Black Dog Institute

Website: www.blackdoginstitute.org.au