Mike Wallace’s Battle With Depression and Suicide

Apr 9, 2012 1:20pm

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At his lowest and most desperate, a bottle of pills and a suicide note seemed like the only answer for the legendary journalist Mike Wallace.

The CBS 60 Minutes correspondent could make some of the most powerful leaders in the world sweat with nervousness, but Wallace will also be remembered as a voice and face for those who have suffered in silence with depression and other mental illnesses.

During a candid interview with psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein in 2009, Wallace said his first major bout of depression was triggered in 1984 after U.S. Army General William C. Westmoreland sued Wallace, along with several other names, for libel. Westmoreland was featured in the CBS documentary, “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” in 1982, and Wallace was the chief correspondent for the investigative report.

“I was on trial for my life,” Wallace, who died Saturday at 93, told Borenstein.

The public humiliation and questions of integrity made him feel “dead inside,” Wallace wrote in January 2002 in an article for Guideposts. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and took sleeping pills in an attempt to get some shuteye. Even after revealing to a family doctor that he worried about his mental state, Wallace said the doctor told him, “You’re a tough guy. You’ll get through it.”

When Wallace’s wife Mary asked whether her husband could be suffering from clinical depression, the doctor reportedly told the couple, “Forget the word ‘depression’ because that’ll be bad for your image.”

But depression consumed him. Wallace described his rock bottom point, when he attempted suicide. “I have to get out of here,” he recalled thinking.

“So I took a bunch of sleeping pills, wrote a note and ate them, and, as a result, I fell asleep,” he said.

Mary found him unconscious in bed  around 3 a.m. Doctors were able to pump his stomach and revive the journalist before he underwent psychological treatment.

In Guidepost, Wallace wrote of his life post-suicide attempt. “Before the new year, I was admitted to the hospital, ‘suffering from exhaustion,’ a CBS spokesman announced.”

Talk therapy and antidepressant medications pulled Wallace through the severe bout of depression in the mid-1980s. While he admittedly had suffered a few more episodes, treatments allowed for better coping methods in the years after his suicide attempt.

When asked what advice he had for those suffering from depression, Wallace said, find a “good psychiatrist.”

“You’re not a nutcase if you want to go see a psychiatrist.”

About 17 million Americans will suffer from depression at some point in their lives and according to the World Health Organization, about 5.8 percent of men and 9.5 percent of women worldwide will experience a depressive episode in any given year. Symptoms of depression include changes in sleep and appetite, inability to enjoy oneself and thoughts of hurting oneself.

Wallace acknowledged that the stigma of mental illness left many people, including himself, undiagnosed and untreated. While awareness and advocacy has curbed some of that taboo, there is still work to be done to remedy such perception of mental illness.

“Until very recently, individuals in positions of power, influence, and authority went to great lengths to hide their mental illness, such as depression, out of fear that the stigma associated with the illness might negatively impact their careers,” said Dr. Amir Afkhami, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at George Washington University. “However, the illness also allowed Wallace to have a familiarity with despair that allowed him to have empathy and a deep sense of connection with victims of injustice.  This came across in his interviews during his tenure on 60 minutes and his work as a producer.”

Experts say any time a public figure like Wallace opens up a discussion about mental illness, it is easier for others who may be suffering in silence to come forward and get treatment.

“What Mike Wallace did by his willingness to talk about his depressive illness was extraordinary,” said Dr. Carol Bernstein, associate professor psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “That kind of openness with something that is usually shunned, avoided and stigmatized in our society was very brave and courageous of him.”

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