When depression looms

Newsman Mike Wallace's wife talks of how to help loved one

April 28, 2006|By JONATHAN BOR | JONATHAN BOR,SUN REPORTER

CBS newsman's wife talks of disease's toll on others The man who faced down presidents, mobsters, despots and stars was strangely withdrawn.

He hesitated to enter a restaurant for fear of what people would think. He resisted social engagements. If the woman he loved suggested that he get up in the morning, he would tell her to mind her own business. He argued, criticized and complained.

"It was like there was some huge, thick cloud over everything," she said, looking back on the autumn of 1984. "You'd walk in the door and it was like, boom! Nothing happy went on, or fun."

It would soon become apparent that CBS newsman Mike Wallace was suffering his first bout of clinical depression. He would eventually get help, and the cloud would lift.

But when the symptoms first struck, neither he nor Mary Yates, the longtime friend who in another two years would become Mary Wallace, had any idea what was wrong. And like so many spouses, friends, sons and daughters, she assumed she was to blame.

"I'd never been with a person who was depressed," she said Tuesday, a few hours before addressing the 20th annual symposium on mood disorders at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "I was flying alone in a new place."

A former television producer with blunt observations about life, Mary Wallace, 77, visited Hopkins to share a family member's perspective on depression. It's a disease that afflicts 18 million adults in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But the figure doesn't begin to capture its impact.

"Like severe forms of cancer, the illness affects the whole family," Dr. J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., director of psychiatry at Hopkins, said in his introduction.

Now an advocate for the direct and indirect victims of mental illness, Mary Wallace serves on the board of the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression. Her husband participates with her in fundraising events and has spoken widely about his illness in hopes of helping others.

And although she doesn't seek the attention, she does speak occasionally about the things she has learned about caring for - and coping with - a depressed person.

She learned that the disease isn't anyone's fault, that it's useless to argue with someone whose thinking is distorted, and that you can't help a depressed person if you are not taking care of yourself. Above all, she said, she learned that the best thing you can do is make sure the person gets proper care.

"They have to go for professional help and take medication," she told the Hopkins audience. "And if they don't behave, you have to leave."

"Not him," she added, sensing the audience was beginning to squirm. "You leave the room."

Learning to cope did not come easily. Mike Wallace's first depressive episode came at a time when his professional integrity was under assault. Gen. William Westmoreland, the former U.S. commander in Vietnam, had sued the newsman and CBS over a documentary that claimed the general's intelligence apparatus had deliberately low-balled enemy troop strength to bolster the public's sagging confidence in the war.

"I was on trial for my life because it was my credibility and everything I stood for," Mike Wallace said in a telephone interview last week.

Although he had experienced low periods like anyone else, he said, suddenly he found himself plunging into a darkness that was foreign and without definition. "You feel helpless and hopeless," he said. "Insecurity, low self-esteem, tears, the works."

He had a hard time concentrating, and this made it hard to conduct the confrontational interviews for which he was famous. The very act of formulating questions and staying on top of people's responses became a struggle.

"You're thinking more about yourself than about the questions," he said.

Seeking help, Mike Wallace consulted his general practitioner, who didn't recognize the problem as clinical depression and instead told him to live up to the tough guy of his public image. Mary Yates knew something was terribly wrong. But what?

"It's like he was a different person," she said. "But you think you're crazy yourself because you don't know what to do."

The two had known each other for most of their adult lives. She and her first husband, television journalist Ted Yates, were close friends of Wallace and his wife, Lorraine. Then, in 1967, Ted Yates was filming a report during the Arab-Israeli War when he was shot in the forehead and killed.

In 1984, after the Wallaces decided to divorce, Mike Wallace and Mary Yates grew closer. They moved in together and began to share a life. She knew him as energetic, interesting, charming and fun.

But suddenly, he was anything but that.

"If we were going to meet people for dinner, he wanted to walk around the block a few times before going in," she said.

He would complain about the food she cooked. He would bark at her to curtail her phone conversations, certain that somebody was trying to reach him.

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