Depression's deadly danger

May 25, 1993

Quite apart from its long-term effects on the political scene in the District of Columbia, the suicide death last week of City Council President John Wilson has refocused attention on the debilitating and often deadly disorder known as clinical depression. Mr. Wilson's family suggested he had taken his own life as a result of a severe depression that began several months ago, the last of a series of such episodes that had plagued his life.

Depression affects some 20 million Americans, according to medical experts, and accounts for as much as 80 percent of the suicides in this country. Experts estimate that depression cost the United States $27 billion in 1989, most of that due to lost work time. The disorder cuts across racial, ethnic, educational and class lines, affecting rich and poor, the young and the elderly, blacks as well as whites.

For several years Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital has sponsored an annual mood disorders symposium and invited prominent people afflicted with the condition to discuss their experiences. Among the well-known personalities who have appeared are TV newsman Mike Wallace, comedian Dick Cavett and author William Styron.

Mr. Styron, whose best-selling book "Darkness Visible" described in harrowing detail his bout with depression and subsequent recovery, told a television interviewer in 1990 that during his illness he became obsessed with thoughts of death and that the anguish he felt "resembles suffocating -- being in a monstrously overheated room, immobilized, without a breeze stirring, and with no way to get out." Yet he hesitated to seek medical help, fearing that being hospitalized would brand him with the stigma of mental illness.

The irony is that depression can almost always be treated successfully, either with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both. Left untreated, however, its consequences can be deadly.

Recently a government-backed panel of specialists deplored the fact most depressed adults get little or no help and urged family doctors to aggressively diagnose and treat the millions of Americans who suffer serious mood disorders each year.

"Depression is not a 'down period,' it's a disorder," said Dr. A. John Rush, a University of Texas psychiatrist who chaired the panel. "Depressions are not due to personal weakness, lack of will or moral defects. [They] are not normal reactions to life's difficulties." Tragically, as the death of Mr. Wilson last week showed, they nevertheless remain all too common.

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