The Canberra Times: Margaret Rice (Feb 09)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 15:39

Breaking down the barriers

by Margaret Rice, 12/02/2009

Organising to interview psychologist Dorothy Rowe, the woman the BBC notes has been described as one of the six wisest people in Britain and one of the world's 100 living geniuses, it is easy to be intimidated. How accessible will she be? Will she be so remote that an interview with a mere mortal will be beyond her?

Rowe earned these labels because she is the author of 13 best-selling books at the classier end of the self-help spectrum, or at the most sombre, depending on your point of view. She has long written on the simple and yet at the same time challenging steps that we can each take as individuals to fight depression. And no wonder her books are international best sellers. The World Health Organisation notes that depression occurs in all societies, that 15 per cent of people in developed countries suffer from it, and that it will be the second biggest health problem world-wide by 2020. Although a long time resident of England, Rowe is Australian. This summer she is staying at her son's unit in Sydney. I need not have worried about Rowe's attitude. Her warm voice at the other end of the line was calm and down to earth. While making the interview arrangements she excused herself for a moment to talk to the dishwasher installer. ''Don't you just hate housework?'' she asked, when back at the phone, gleeful that she no longer has to waste as much time at the kitchen sink. So even though likely to be the wisest and cleverest person I would ever eet, she clearly doesn't take herself too seriously, an impression compounded when she said she doubted the survey processes.

During the interview itself, Rowe was relaxed but sharp. With her smartly cropped white hair, penetrating blue-green eyes and relaxed good humour, the 78-year-old is glad to be in Australia. She is avoiding freezing London, catching up with Edward, her 51-year-old, only child and doing a book tour, to promote her latest book, released last October, What Should I Believe?

During our chat Rowe talked about her many concerns. She wonders what global warming will deliver the next generation; she abhors the latest round of conflict in the Gaza and she is relieved that the presidency of George W. Bush has come to an end because she believes he is a good example of the very worst type of religious zealot, scrutinised in What Should I Believe?

Rowe's book follows a number of recent ''belief'' books, such as The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins but unlike the others, her main focus is on the consequences that belief in God can cause to the self-perception of individuals. Rowe is no friend of organised religion, which she argues in What Should I Believe?, is responsible for immense personal suffering. Children of the uncompromisingly religious usually tend to develop a self-belief that insists that they have to be good but at the same time, they can never be good enough. ''If that's how you see yourself you become an expert in guilt and you blame yourself for disasters that have nothing to do with you. I often say that the Church keeps me in business,'' Rowe said. For the first time, because of this book, when Rowe gives a lecture she can find herself confronting several hostile audience members. ''It's only the belief that you are born in sin that makes salvation necessary. Yet I'm told 'that's not real Christianity', when I describe the impact of this,'' she explained.

In the 25 years her books have been published, Rowe has scrutinised the impact of a number of different beliefs on depression. In The Real Meaning of Money, published in 1997, she explained why money is part of our identity. In her 2007 book My Dearest Enemy, My Dangerous Friend Rowe discussed sibling rivalry and was surprisingly candid about her own suffering caused by her relationship with her unnamed sister, who is six years older and her only sibling.

Early in the book she talks about her childhood fear of accidentally destroying her sister's two miniature china dogs and the long-term hold this fear had on her. At the end she describes how on her sister's wedding day she squeezed her hand in a loving gesture but her sister responded by giving her a black look. ''I was shamed and worried that all the wedding guests had seen what happened. I am no longer frightened of my sister's black looks even though I still manage to earn them,'' she noted. These were only a few of the incidents that she described. I asked Rowe what impact publication of these had on their relationship. ''She said to me 'I'm not upset and I'm not going to discuss it.' Which meant: 'Yes, those things happened but I'm not going to discuss it.' That's it. And no, she didn't say 'I'm sorry'. What can you say? There's nothing. I don't know,'' Rowe said, pausing for a while.

Rowe has received many emails and letters since that book from people who said that it explained so much to them about their own family dynamics. This book may have revealed vulnerability and the latest is controversial, but like her previous books, they offered useful management tools to people suffering from depression. Rowe's main thesis for many years, based on extensive research, has been that depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance or an inherited gene, the view taught to and taught by many psychiatrists. She makes the point that depression is too complex to be ascribed to genes in this way. Instead, she argues that it is the unsurprising human response to a discrepancy between beliefs and reality.

When Rowe arrived in England from Australia, in 1968, after positive experiences working with children at North Ryde Psychiatric Centre, Sydney, she was shocked to find that those diagnosed with depression were locked up in old-fashioned asylums.

''The asylums were vile, just disgusting, dirty, horrible places. How they could think anybody would feel better in one of those I don't know if anyone was insane it was the psychiatrists. ''And they used to say if we made it nice they wouldn't want to go home,'' said Rowe. Rowe became increasingly concerned as patients were told that they had a chemical imbalance, when none of the scientific research proved the theory. Equally as disturbing was the fact that they so quickly went on to medication or electro-convulsive therapy. ''They weren't interested in anything that had happened to the person or the person's background. I thought this is just totally wrong, so that's why I wrote Depression: The Way Out Of Your Prison,'' she said. This was published in 1983 and since then Rowe has been a constant voice, questioning assumptions about the psychiatric management of depression. ''Everybody's vulnerable if they don't understand the way we react when we discover there's a serious discrepancy between what we thought our life was and what it actually is,'' she explained. ''When I talk about discovering a discrepancy between what you thought your life was and what it actually is, you'll see in the lives of some people that they might have had a series of experiences where that's happened. And then something happens which may not be to the outside observer a really big disaster. But that's when they fall apart, that's when they become depressed, when they are threatened with their greatest fear. For extroverts this is a fear of being left utterly alone. And for introverts it's chaos, complete loss of control,'' she explained.

Although horrible when it happens, it is part of human experience, she said. If depression is part of human experience, Rowe's corollary is that you can help yourself to overcome it. Rowe's tone became joyous and she was her most animated when discussing the practical way in which her books have helped people. ''What's really nice, giving a lecture or doing a book club event, is when people come up to me, taking a book out of a plastic bag and I realise it's one of mine, and it's almost falling apart with being read. And they say, 'Would you mind signing it?' And I think it's wonderful. If I can get a chance to look through these copies they're underlined, there's yellow marks, notes and comments and the person has used it as a work book. That's what I want it to be used as. You can do it yourself. Don't be misled by the psychologists and psychiatrists, you can work it out for yourself.''

Rowe is pleased that the British Government is now financially supporting talking therapies as a first step before medication, for the depressed. ''The British Government, following a report by the economist Layard on depression and how it costs the country vast sums of money, is now putting a lot of money into developing a walk-in therapy service for depression as part of the National Health Service,'' she said. In Australia, sessions of counselling are also now funded through Medicare, for those who see their general practitioner for depression. But Rowe raises concerns about how heavily pharmaceuticals are subsidised by the Federal Government here, something which means there is no price signal to ensure that they are not over-prescribed. ''Ideas are maintained because somebody profits from them,'' she commented sagely. No doubt the themes she explored in our discussion are just a few of the many that she will tackle at her talks in Canberra, which promise to be lively and challenging.

Dorothy Rowe will talk on ''Depression and Happiness'' at Paperchain Bookstore, Manuka, on February 24 at 6pm and then give a general talk at Tilley's Devine Cafe Gallery, Lyneham, on February 25 at 8pm.

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