Mike Wallace, a speaker at the White House Conference on Mental Health that I attended, described how he developed depression. He was in the midst of a long libel trial, where his integrity and judgment were questioned every day, much as he relentlessly interrogates his own victims. Everything he stood for was being challenged, and the outcome was very much in doubt. Every day, he felt worse; unable to sleep, concentrate, or make simple decisions, grouchy, full of anxiety and self-doubt. Every night, he would call his doctor, who would tell him “You’re strong, Mike. You can get through this.” Finally one day Wallace checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. He got medication and therapy, and recovered.
More than 19 million adult Americans will have a similar experience this year. They’ll develop depression, and they’ll get inadequate treatment. Many will be unnecessarily incapacitated for weeks or months because their illness is untreated. If 19 million Americans developed cancer, or polio, or AIDS every year and were not treated for it, just think of the outcry.
But depression is an invisible epidemic. According to a recent study by the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and Harvard University, depression is second only to heart disease in its impact on death and disability worldwide. Major depression alone accounts for almost seven percent of health costs in developed economies-more than all cancers combined, more than alcoholism, more than accidents, more than Alzheimer’s.
This is not because depression is untreatable. Far from it; the success rates for treatment of depression are better than for many so-called “physical” illnesses. But only one-third of people with depression get treatment, and only one-third of those get adequate treatment. Depression remains a major public health problem simply because our perception is so faulty: “It’s a weakness,” “You’ll get over it,” “I’m not taking any pills.” At the conference, someone else cited a recent survey finding that the majority of Americans believe that mental illness cannot be effectively diagnosed or treated. If this is what people believe about depression, no wonder they want to stay in denial about its existence.
The truth is that 80 to 90 percent of people will recover from depression if they get adequate treatment. It was years before Wallace told anyone about his experience. Finally on a late-night interview show, when he knew that people who were feeling just as bad as he had would be watching, he talked about what had happened to him. He was surprised when the wire services picked it up and made it a big story. But, because of our 19th-century attitude about mental illness, we’re surprised when a strong, capable man reveals that he was laid low, and now is up again. We shouldn’t be surprised at all. It happens every day to people who have the courage to seek help when they need it.
Wallace, William Styron, and Art Buchwald all had summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard. They formed the “Blues Brothers,” an informal support group for each other, and supported each other in their own initiatives to make their depression public in an effort to help others.