Listening to Ian Thorpe

Good on you Ian Thorpe.

As a school principal I am grateful to you for being open about the depression that you experienced, bringing awareness to to our community that you have been in crisis even though you are one of Australia’s greatest swimmers.

It is my experience that some young people who seemingly ‘have it all’ can have very dark periods. Some students who strive for perfection agonise over their inability to fully control their image, their body shape, their academic results…

By standing in front of the cameras and talking openly about depression some young people in our communities might now seek the help they require.

And thank you for talking about telling the truth. I am not sure that I am right, but you seemed to frame depression as being both a medical and a personal or spiritual issue.

When we speak about depression, we talk about it as an illness. It is rightly described as a medical condition.

Yet one of the difficulties that I observe in some young people who are depressed is that they experience a crisis of identity. Their poetry and prose writing expresses the following idea: ‘If all of my thoughts are the result of the machinery of my brain, then I have no influence over anything I do. If I am only a machine, and that machine is chemically awry, I have no ‘person-hood’, no escape from the mire.’ 

When you, Ian Thorpe, spoke about the pain you felt when journalists asked you if you are gay, you said that you are insulted that they believe that you are seeking to deceive people. You said that you are a person who strives to tell the truth.

You upheld the idea that telling the truth is something a human can do. You upheld the idea that we are spiritual beings that have volition.

Augustine had insights that Skinner didn’t. The brain and mind are integrated, but they are not the same thing.

I don’t know if you meant to say this but I heard it loud and clear. Depression is not a master to be served.

This is why psychiatrist at Prince of Wales and Sydney Children’s hospital, and Order of Australia recipient, Professor Michael Dudley, argues that we need to broaden our understanding if we are to address issues like depression. Historically spirituality/religion and psychiatry/psychology have been at odds in the modern West, and spirituality/religion continues to be largely invisible in psychological and psychiatric research and practice. He argues cogently that this situation needs amendment. Culture and spirituality, he says,  are central to understanding the psychological causes of illness, its manifestation, its natural history, and as potential protective factors.