Depression "Out of the Closet"

by Mary Allen and David M. Edwards

 

Cronkite & the WallacesIn March 27, 1997, Mary Wallace received the first National Family Achievement Award, honoring her for the dedicated support she provided during her husband Mike's struggle with depression, and for her continued help to other families dealing with the same problem. The award was presented to Mrs. Wallace by Kathy Cronkite, daughter of the renowned former CBS news anchor, Walter Cronkite. Ms. Cronkite, a long-time family friend of the Wallaces, has been a forceful advocate of bringing depression out into the open. A consumer of mental health services in her own battle with depression, she profiled the Wallaces' story in her book,"On the Edge of Darkness" (See Treatment Today, Fall 1995).

The National Family Achievement Award is part of a larger initiative called "Family Foundation." Family Foundation is a joint program developed by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and Pfizer Inc. that focuses on the impact of mental illness on families, as well as the impact of families on mental illness. Mrs. Wallace and Ms. Cronkite are among the judges who will choose the next recipient of the award.

The award honors Mrs. Wallace's tireless efforts to educate herself, her family and others on the importance of recognizing and seeking treatment for depression -- especially cultivating a loving and supportive environment for recovery. To that end, she started a support group in 1994 to help other families and their members discover positive methods of addressing and coping with depression. Since that time, she has been involved in continuing efforts to provide support to other families and bring depression "out of the closet."

When a celebrity speaks out about a personal problem he or she has battled, it can help to focus public attention on the issue, as well as reduce the stigma associated with the problem. Often, a close friend or family member plays a crucial role in overcoming the difficulty. Mike Wallace, co-editor of CBS television's "60 Minutes" since its premier in 1968, has spoken with candor and insight about his own experience with depression. Mr. Wallace is quick to give credit to his wife, Mary, for her dedication and support throughout the ordeal.

"Living with a depressed person is very difficult. You can't reach them, you don't know what to do, and in our case I didn't even know what depression was, nor did Mike," Mrs. Wallace said. One of the most difficult things about dealing with depression is simply to recognize it for what it is. Unfortunately, depression often goes unrecognized, leading to misunderstandings, bruised feelings or worse. "I think it causes a lot of divorces because so many people don't understand what's going on."

Mrs. Wallace described her feelings as she dealt with Mike's depression. She felt a certain amount of guilt, "not because he was depressed, but because I couldn't make him feel better. I didn't know what to do. I thought it was my fault." She felt lucky because Mike knew he was ill and sought professional help. That is often not the case with people suffering from depression. "It's difficult to get these people to a doctor, and then to get the correct diagnosis and treatment."

"Everyone needs to know the symptoms of depression," she said, "such as loss of appetite, negativity, tiredness and moodiness -- just to name a few. It is a relief to find out and know whatever has caused this illness has a name and can be treated."

After Mike began treatment, he started to speak out regularly about depression. In a moving speech before a congressional committee last year, he described how depression took him to such a low point that he felt he could never recover. "Depression takes over your life," he said. "It's painful. You don't eat. You don't sleep. Your self-esteem drops to zero, and you're trying to hide it, which makes it more difficult." In that speech, he credited Mary with his recovery: "My wife's tireless support and encouragement got me to see a doctor and start treatment. I couldn't have come this far without her."

Mike and Mary cite the help of their close friends, author William Styron and columnist Art Buchwald, both of whom have battled depression and subsequently made use of their notoriety to talk about it. Reduction of the associated stigma is one of the greatest benefits to be derived when well-known people discuss their experiences with illnesses like depression. "When I was a little girl," Mrs. Wallace said "one didn't say the word cancer; you might whisper it. If someone died of cancer, another reason was given for it. That's how I think depression is now."

The effort to overcome ignorance, which is at the root of stigma, has become the focus of Mike and Mary Wallace's activities with regard to depression. "Depression touches so many people," Mrs. Wallace said. "For instance, Mike will give a speech about some aspect of television. There is always a question-and-answer (session) afterwards, and even though the subject is television, many of the questions are about depression."

In addition to her efforts on behalf of the Family Foundation over the coming year, Mrs. Wallace is counseling author Anne Sheffield on a book titled "Depression Fallout: Living and Coping with Proximity to Someone Else's Despair," scheduled to be published by Crowne in 1998.

Depression is a pervasive, debilitating illness that often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Through the efforts of people like Mike and Mary Wallace, others will more readily recognize the symptoms of depression and will no longer feel a reluctance to seek professional help for fear of being stigmatized. Mary sums it up this way: "The family can't cure it, they didn't cause it, but they can see to it that the ill person gets professional help."


For more information, please contact the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (800/950-NAMI) or visit NAMI's web site at http://www.nami.org. More information about depression can be found at http://www.depression-info.com.

 © 1997 Quest Publishing Company, Inc.

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