April 10th, 2012
08:29 AM ET

Mike Wallace's public battle with depression

Since his death at age 93 Saturday, much has been written about hard-edged ex-"60 Minutes" reporter Mike Wallace's epic verbal battles with world leaders, swindlers and alleged crime bosses.

But in 2005, Wallace made news of his own when he acknowledged his longtime war with depression - a fight that nearly caused him to take his own life.

"I came perilously close to committing suicide," Wallace wrote in his memoir "Between You and Me."

He described in dramatic detail how he was crushed by a devastating depression fueled by stress from a $120 million libel suit over a 1982 CBS documentary about the Vietnam War. The subsequent trial, he wrote, pushed him "more deeply into a dark and devastating malaise, which was crushing my spirit and even sapping my will to live."

Going public with his struggle did much to help others know they weren't alone, said Dr. Charles Raison, CNNhealth's mental health expert.

Telling everyone that someone as famously intelligent and successful as Wallace could be taken down by the disease helped to lessen the social stigma that often comes with the label "clinically depressed," said Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

It wasn't surprising the pit bull of old-school TV journalism had the tenacity to confront his demons in public - displaying his dirty laundry on his own terms. It was classic Wallace, the king of confrontation using the tools of his trade to melt away the stigma like so many scandal-plagued politicians sweating under hot TV lights.

Wallace's admission humanized him against a self-described "tough guy" reputation, said Dr. Aaron Rochlen, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

"There was a lot of positive reaction and appreciation for his public acknowledgment of what was going on for him. It took self-awareness and courage for him to admit that."

Americans have been more open about their depression in recent years, Rochlen said. The issue has been appearing in pop culture, such as Tony Soprano's discussion of depression. Soprano's therapy was a central theme of "The Sopranos," which was "important in impacting impressions about men and mental health and in therapy," Rochlen said. "Former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw has been very open about his struggles with depression. So I do think there's been a cultural shift in terms of decreasing stigma, but there's a long way to go."

Wallace wrote in his book that he'd sought help from a doctor he'd been going to for years. But that doctor, he said, failed to recognize Wallace was sliding into a clinical depression.

"That's terribly common," Raison said. "Studies in both the UK and the U.S. suggest that that happens more than 50% percent of the time. There have been studies in the United States that suggest that of all the people that have clinical depression - probably less than 25% get adequate, appropriate treatment."

Wallace wrote he was losing his appetite and was taking sleeping pills to offset insomnia during the trial.

"This is a classic symptom," Raison said. "Among men, somewhere between 90% and 95% of people who get emotionally depressed will demonstrate changes in sleep and appetite. In women, it's almost 100%."

Wallace also wrote that he feared the lawsuit and trial - brought by William C. Westmoreland, the retired U.S. Army general who had led U.S. troops in Vietnam - would irreparably damage his reputation as a reporter, which experts say also would have contributed to his deepening depression.

Men often connect their sense of well-being to their careers and their career-related success, Rochlen said.

"When there are threats to that success or obstacles to reaching their goals, that can spur on a depression," he said.

Raison added, "The stressers that are most likely to make people depressed are things that threaten their image of who they are.  Things that are likely to make you lose status, lose power, lose the respect of other people, lose everything you've built, destroy what you think your life is about. Even when the stresser gets fixed, the depression often persists."

Wallace wrote it was only because of the "love and caring support from a friend" that he was able to avert taking his own life.

"Mood disorders seem to be linked to both creativity and intelligence, according to a number of studies,"  Raison said. The message: Anyone can suffer from clinical depression.

"Anyone who saw Mike Wallace decimate these people during interviews, you wouldn't pick him as a guy that had depression," Raison said. "When you're depressed, it's very, very hard to do anything. Isn't it amazing that a guy who was so bullish, so pro-active, so driven, could at the same time suffer with the condition that eliminates those traits? That's what really struck me."

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