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Healthy Living: 'Taking Away the Stigma'

Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

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Mike Wallace had been at the top of his profession for so long that he didn't know what was happening when depression tripped him and threw him into a mental black hole.

He could handle success. He could handle pressure. But he couldn't handle depression.

"People think 'depression --- oh, big deal.' But I don't know anyone who's been through a major depression who hasn't at least contemplated suicide. You feel copeless and hopeless and in a special kind of pain," said Wallace, co-editor of CBS' "60 Minutes," describing his first bout with depression in 1984.

Tonight, Wallace, who still takes medication to help treat depression, is scheduled to join two extraordinarily successful friends, novelist William Styron and columnist Art Buchwald, and two renowned psychiatrists to discuss why depression is something that people cannot handle alone. The panel discussion, a private event at Skyland Trail treatment center on North Druid Hills Road, will be moderated by retired CNN News Group Chairman and President Tom Johnson, who also has suffered from depression.

The illness still gets denigrated, experts say, and it is especially hard for men to talk about.

Organizers of the panel discussion, dubbed "An Evening With the Blues Brothers," hope that having the three men talk about treatment of depression, its stigma and what it feels like to come out of the mental health closet will help those with depression seek treatment.

"The real issue we're trying to address is stigma," said Dr. William M. McDonald, associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine, who is one of the two medical panelists. "These are all prominent, successful men. If people can see that they have depression, get it treated and then still function, that goes a long way to taking away the stigma."

Styron and Buchwald are both Pulitzer Prize winners, and Wallace, with 20 Emmy Awards, holds a unique place in American broadcast journalism as the master of the investigative interview. The three are summer neighbors on Martha's Vineyard. All have suffered severe bouts of depression.

"This isn't a broken bone or scarlet fever. This is a mental illness, and it doesn't get the same treatment," said Wallace, who turns 86 on May 9.

Depressive disorder --- which includes chronic, mild depression; major depressive disorder (such as Wallace first experienced in 1984); and bipolar disorder --- afflicts more than 20 million people a year; 6 million are men. Depression accounts for $30 billion a year in lost workplace productivity. 'Guilt, self-reproach'

Depression lowers self-esteem and leads to painful feelings of self-reproach in both men and women.

"Part and parcel of depression is overwhelming guilt and self-reproach," said Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff, chairman of the psychiatry department at Emory. "Depressed people think 'God must be punishing me' or 'I deserve this.' "

It exacts an unusual toll on men, however. Men tend to become withdrawn and irritable, whereas women are more prone to tearfulness and sadness. Men are less likely to seek treatment.

Also, four times more men die from suicide than women do, even though more women attempt suicide. Researchers say that's because more men use guns to kill themselves, whereas women use pills; guns are more accurate.

And depressed men are more likely than women to see the illness as a moral shortcoming or as unmanly. "A lot of men are just tremendously embarrassed to seek help," said Dr. Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. "It can seem like another piece of evidence that something is wrong with you."

Wallace well remembers feeling that way.

"I was ashamed to acknowledge what I was going through," he said.

Wallace's depression came on slowly. He was 65. Retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland had sued CBS and Wallace for $120 million, claiming that the network had libeled him. Westmoreland testified that during his interview with Wallace, he realized ". . . that this was an inquisition, and I also realized that I was participating in my own lynching."

Wallace took it hard.

First came the inability to sleep. Wallace took pills to help; they wore off. He felt worse.

"You couldn't sleep, and then you began to take sleeping pills, and then you begin to spiral down," said Wallace.

Something else was going on besides the stress of having his name dragged through the mud, something alien to the tough-willed, piercing interrogator.

Even though he had reported on depression, it did not occur to him that he might have the illness himself. His life had been a string of successes. He was known to millions as a grand inquisitor who could finesse or scare the truth out of anyone. But depression backed him into a corner and made him question, darkly, his existence, his worth and whether his life was worth living. He could barely stand the thought of testifying in the trial.

"You can imagine what it was like to be sitting there in that cold, drafty federal courthouse, waiting to testify," he said last week. News accounts at the time describe a gruelingly slow-paced, high-stakes trial that could have turned into a Greek tragedy at any moment, destroying the reputation of warriors both real and symbolic.

Wallace's doctor referred him to a psychiatrist, but Wallace remained skeptical. He thought he was simply overstressed.

"Finally, he said, 'Mr. Wallace, you've got to get ready to testify. You know those questions they are going to ask you, you know you're going to sit there and be called a liar, cheat and a fraud. You've got to get ready,' " Wallace said of the conversation that finally made him accept that he was ill.

When Westmoreland dropped the suit, Wallace felt a huge sense of relief. He thought his depression was over. He stopped taking medicine. It didn't take long for his depression to revisit him, this time even more menacingly.

In the years since, Wallace and summer neighbors Styron and Buchwald have talked among themselves and publicly about their depression.

Styron wrote a best-selling book, "Darkness Visible," in 1990. Buchwald and Wallace have appeared together on CNN's "Larry King Live" and discussed their depression, and Wallace and Styron were featured in a documentary about the illness. Buchwald has appeared at the Carter Center to talk about depression.

This is the first time, however, that the three have appeared together, bringing together men in the top of their respective fields to talk about an illness that has taken them to the pits of despair. 'Go get help'

Buchwald, 78, has a way of making people laugh, and he laughs about the fact that one of America's most beloved humorists struggles with depression.

"It's funny," Buchwald said last week. "They call me a humorist, but I seem to be like everyone else. "

His first episode came 41 years ago. After working in Europe for 14 years, he came home. Depression overtook him.

"It was tough for me," he said. "You know, I was a foster child. I became a humorist; that's how I got my love."

He became a successful journalist, and he thought his life was going great, especially in view of the difficulties he had overcome as a child.

"All of these things were great; I thought I had licked it," he said of his childhood of hardships.

Then came his first depressive episode, the feelings of darkness, of being in a black hole. Before he knew it, Buchwald was in a hospital for four weeks.

Like Wallace, Buchwald had a second episode, this time a manic episode, indicative of bipolar disorder. That was in 1987. He was prescribed medicine, which he still takes. He is doing fine, he said.

Both men want to stress to other men and to anyone who suffers from the inescapable feelings of despair and doom that it's not only OK but imperative to get help.

"Get thee to a psychiatrist," was Wallace's prompt answer to what advice he would give to someone suffering from the illness.

"If he can't get out of bed, he has to go get help," said Buchwald.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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