Ten years ago, sharing this story would have been difficult. Today, opening up about my personal bouts with depression over the past 26 years is essential.
We don’t have a data base of exact numbers of journalists who have experienced depression, anxiety, or any form of emotional illness.
Yet, we know all too sadly the personal stories of many national figures in news and sports media who have been through the lowest of the low challenges in their lives. This list is only a partial one of those, both living and dead, who have battled depression: Mike Wallace (CBS News), Art Buchwald (The Washington Post), Hunter S. Thompson (father of “gonzo” journalism), Terry Bradshaw (Fox Sports), Jack Marschall (WEWS, Cleveland), Lauren Rowe (WKMG, Orlando), Jim Jensen (WCBS, New York), Roy Hobbs (WBMA, Birmingham), John Head (USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
Lest we forget the dramatically tragic story of Christine Chubbuck, the young Florida TV journalist, whose struggles with depression led her to take her own life with a gun on live television more than 40 years ago.
What we have no way of determining is the volume of journalists who have or have previously suffered with depression but have chosen to remain silent.
Add me to the list above. While, thankfully, I have never been suicidal, depression has been as real for me as eating a meal or taking a walk. Related stresses from television news, as well as my own personality makeup, were significant contributing factors.
I, as a former reporter-anchor-producer-substitute sports and weathercaster and news director, have battled depression for 26 years. My initial diagnosis came when I was still an active news director. Since then, in 2010 and 2014, I have had two subsequent serious bouts with depression that had at least a relationship to supervising a daily cable television newscast for students.
This personal diary is not written as even a remote suggestion that to enter broadcast journalism, one is likely to contract emotional depression. Just as that silent illness is not “one size fits all,” neither are the personalities in a TV newsroom. Because lives and personalities are not perfect, symmetrical clones, I am suggesting the nature of television news—particularly in a day where newsroom personnel are compelled to do far more in more on-air hours with less or little increase in support staff—the vulnerability to depression is greater than ever.
Let me be clear not to limit this to simply the on-air personnel. The demands on videographers, producers, assignment editors, helicopter pilots, directors, technical directors and control room personnel are as stressful as ever.
I am not what one would call a former “star” of local television news. My career was not what one would call distinguished. You would not find me within hundreds of miles of the Mount Rushmore of gamechangers in TV news. I was a fairly steady, workmanlike political and education reporter, an anchor who was hired too young for the prime time desk, a producer and assistant news director in a top 35 market, and a news director of varying degrees of success and failure in three cities.
Yes, I have long since come to grips that some elements of my career were a failure. Failure is a word news directors are never supposed to publicly admit. Yet, only through failure can one appreciate whatever successes one achieves in any walk of life.
I won my fair share of personal journalism awards. As a news director, a couple of my shops won Pacemaker Awards from the Associated Press as top performers in their market sizes. I will also candidly tell you that none of those plaques means diddly-dip except for the fleeting moment at which one is given the honor. You can possess a shelf full of certificates and hardware—-but if you don’t have your health, especially one’s mental health, awards and $4.95 will buy one a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
I remember my first trip in 1983 to a Radio-Television News Directors Association Convention in Las Vegas. My most vivid memory was of dozens of guys in three-piece suits roaming the halls and floors, scrambling to find phones to call back to their newsrooms. I never could figure if they were so attached to their stations that they couldn’t live without an hourly checkup, or if they had no faith in their senior staff.
I also observed how few people smiled. When someone did, his or her mouth looked much as Nick Saban’s. Ever notice even when Saban smiles after he wins another national title, his grin appears so painful and strained that he looks as if he’s constipated?
Perhaps that was the ultimate snapshot at the time of the profession I chose.
I was sent to a management seminar for ABC affiliate news directors at a Chicago hotel only two weeks after I was appointed to my first leadership role at a Georgia station. The motivational speaker who led our first-day session offered some unmistakable words: “Many of you are here today because you were either a good or a great reporter or perhaps an outstanding producer,” he said. “If you’re new to the job, now that you’re the head coach, the world is going to take on a different level of challenges. Some of you will enjoy them. Some of you will despise them.”
When the boss who taught me more about TV news than anyone, Dave Richardson, learned that I was under consideration for two news director positions, he posed a question that made the clock stop for a few minutes. “If you had to, could you fire me?” he asked. Dave’s tree of future news directors was almost as large as Saban’s is of coordinators becoming head coaches in college football.
In my first stint as a news director, I gained interesting insight into the psychology of a staff that I never gleaned as a staff member. I also learned a lot about me. I had no medical evidence, but I am convinced I inherited at least four people who either were young alcoholics or well on the way to that category. They were in the unofficial fraternity of news practitioners who hit the local bars religiously after the nightly on-air effort to “talk shop,” complain and drown themselves in the latest libation.
Some of them had genuine talent. At least one is still in the profession. Yet, I found myself spending significant time as amateur psychologist as well as news supervisor. Yeah, I can read the reaction of the scroll of names who have held the title news director in the last 40 years. Some of them are saying, “That was your first mistake. You don’t have time or the need to be a counselor in a newsroom.” Okay, maybe. Just chalk it up that I believe in people and a whole person brings more to the table than what they can produce and deliver for a minute and a half in a nightly newscast. If I blew it for that, I plead guilty.
In 1990, after a few years voluntarily out of TV news to work on a graduate degree, I came back to the profession. I was not looking to return as a news director; however, a friend and colleague (and, yes, he still is both today) told me of a job he was passing on because he received a significantly better offer elsewhere. He suggested I at least call to talk to the people. He had already told them about me.
The job was in a much smaller market than in any city where I had previously worked. I had never heard of Jackson, Tn. Geographically, I was ignorant of its location. I had no idea the city was the home of rockabilly legend Carl Perkins or the original home of railroad legend Casey Jones. I knew not that a long-time favorite of mine, Wink Martindale, was a native of Jackson. Somehow, I missed that an NBC News correspondent I long admired, John Dancy, was from Jackson.
I made the six-hour journey to the place known as the Hub City of West Tennessee. Largely, Jackson is the center of a rural area of 14 counties. On a Friday or Saturday night, drop by any of the city’s many restaurants and one will see tons of auto tags from all 14 of those counties. The school district had just consolidated from separate city and county systems into one metropolitan system. The hope of key city leaders was that union would lead to a marriage of city and county government. The latter has still not happened and probably never will. The school situation remains a quagmire of constituencies and territorial lines. At the moment, the district’s school board is in search of its tenth superintendent in 27 years.
Despite every visible reason not to come to Jackson, Tn., I accepted the job as news director at WBBJ, the ABC affiliate for central and upper West Tennessee. The sole competition was a token UHF Fox affiliate with no news operation that basically delivered programming from a Memphis station. Understand that after working in a Top 35 market, going to Jackson, Tn., is like accepting a head football coaching job at Florida Atlantic after working as a coordinator at North Carolina. I didn’t care. Somebody had to take that job. Why not me?
I came to Jackson despite having seen a newsroom that physically and structurally appeared to be one clapboard away from a collapse. The day I came to interview, not a single local news story was on the 6:00 newscast. A 3 1/2-minute handout tape from the Department of Agriculture on how to raise pole beans was. Weather ran an amazing six minutes, probably because of so little local news output. Sports took up a similar amount of time, but all of it was the same stuff one would see on ESPN SportsCenter.
Over the course of the interview process, I was made assurances of a variety of items that were essential to me to have a fighting chance to rebuild a news department that was in shambles after seven months without a news director. On a side note, the station had been without a permanent general manager for the same length of time.
Despite what any sane professional would say in evaluating the wisdom of taking such a job, I accepted. I surmised that even small, incremental progress would be regarded as victories. I thought to myself no way you could mess this one up.
Today’s cliche, particularly in college and pro athletics, is “changing the culture” when new leadership is hired. In the case of WBBJ in May 1990, the job was actually to create a culture. Nearly half the staff worked at second jobs because they could not afford to live on what the ownership paid. The newsroom was included in that category.
Ten years later, ABC News religion correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer was in Jackson for a speaking engagement. She asked the WBBJ reporter/weekend anchor present what her salary was. To my shock, the young woman was gutsy enough to reveal her hourly pay. “That…..is a crime!” Ms. Wehmeyer said without a beat.
Throughout the station, the issues were many. The standard was primarily to get material on the air. Quality? No time for that. Communication was marginal, at best. On my fourth weekend in Jackson, no provision had been made for an audio operator for the 10:00 news. The two fellows who rotated in the slot had convinced each other that the other was supposed to work that Saturday night. On the air, no bumper music was available. The director had no choice but to leave the anchor mike live. The pleasant sound of paper-shuffling accompanied the transition to commercial breaks.
Very quickly, things that were not stated during the hiring process became quite clear. When I was filling out the employment paperwork during my first week, I was greeted with the happy news that my health insurance coverage would not kick in for 90 days. I had been told my staff would number 12 people. “Oh, we’re under a hiring freeze,” I was told by the new general manager who took over the same day as I did as news director. “You’re only going to have slots for 9 1/2 people. But don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll be out from under the freeze soon.” Yeah. Radio communication between a newsroom and crews is a staple as necessary as potatoes in a restaurant. On my first day, I heard a crime call on the police monitor and asked the assignment editor to get a crew there. “I can’t,” she said. “We don’t have a two-way radio.” This was a few years before cell phones.
I had no idea how frustrated viewers were with the station’s news performance. Within two weeks, I learned. That two weeks spread into six weeks, then into twelve. The calls often came in a dozen per night: “When are you people finally going to get your act together down there and at least look like something other than a bunch of amateurs?” That was one of the kinder ones. Some of the responses bordered on what we define today as hate speech. A few nights, I went home half-believing I must be the worst leader in America, or I made the dumbest decision of my life taking on this challenge.
I won’t bore you with the litany of other problems that had to be navigated. Needless to say, every time I heard a news director from big market stations complain about their lot in life—and I certainly understood their mountains to climb, I wanted to ask, “Want to trade with me for a week?”
For 14 months, I scratched, clawed and struggled a day at a time just to make incremental progress. In addition to having to largely teach a newsroom how to cover beats and how to report from scratch, I was also walking that slippery slope of managing up to a first-time general manager. He was one of the world’s nicest men but was, in fact, learning how to manage up to his corporate headquarters. Accordingly, progress was slower in developing than in academia.
Then, we had the day that the Associated Press wire service was suspended for every station in the chain. Why? The bill had not been paid. A friend of mine and former news director was a rep for The AP. I called him in Atlanta and asked what was going on. He said, “Your owner has an agreement that only he personally can negotiate with us. This is the third time your company has been late paying the bill. We gave them grace before but we’re just not going to do it this time.” The owner was off on a vacation where he could not be found for the weekend. All of his stations were left without AP access for six days. No wonder my hair was falling out with increasing speed and my blood pressure was elevated.
I made a huge mistake upon realizing how shorthanded this staff was to accomplish its daily mission. I attempted to personally fill in the gaps and do the work of three people. A psychologist later described that for me as a “Superman complex.” No one human has the physical makeup of Superman. Attempting to take on the tasks of multiple people never results in a positive result and often breaks the person who tries it.
Six months, eight months, ten months elapsed. Improvement occurred in small doses. Content and reporting were better. Our on-air look and technical support were still lodged in the late 1970s. I developed a log of 53 spot stories that we missed because we had no two-way radio communication in these pre-cell phone days to direct crews to a location.
To provide enough content to adequately fill the half-hour we were producing at 6:00 (heaven forbid if we had been doing two hours a night as the same station does today), I became an additional reporter as well as news director. Nearly 15 years earlier, I had developed a skill of moving efficiently from one story to another. Ask any news director if one can effectively administrate a news operation while trying to serve as an active, in-the-field journalist and you will hear the same reaction as a bank president attempting to serve as a teller. The recipe is one for personal disaster.
Approximately 11 months into the job, I knew I was not myself. I was chronically fatigued and on the verge of a total collapse. I fooled myself into thinking things would improve, but I had no idea how to make that happen. No additional staffing was on the horizon. We had no signs of sorely-needed equipment coming into the house, despite repeated petitions to Charlotte.
Likewise, I was feeling enormous guilt about moving us here and not having the foresight to take the job in which so many basics were different from what had been assured me when I came for the interview. Extreme guilt coupled with exhaustion are two of the prime ingredients of depression.
On a Monday evening 13 months after I arrived in Jackson, I opened the front door of my house, dropped to my knees and had what in years past was referred to as a nervous breakdown. Today, the customary term is an emotional collapse. I erupted into uncontrollable tears. The harder I tried to stop, the worse the crying spell became. For 90 minutes—the length of a single episode of the old western series “The Virginian”—-I continued to cry. Finally, after making several phone calls to determine how best to help, my wife convinced me to get in the shower and stay there until I could calm down, if that were possible.
One of the calls went to my father in Georgia. If ever an expert on depression existed, he was one. A Navy veteran who was injured in the Pacific during World War II, he was an active pastor for more than 40 years. Anyone who thinks a minister’s life is a perpetual serene essence of service needs to have a few conversations. F.J. Beverly Jr. was diagnosed with depression in 1971 in an era when stigmas and ignorant stereotypes of emotional illness were huge and demeaning. Even fellow pastors shied away from him. I had lived for 20 years with the worry that the characteristics of depression could be inherited. Daddy had a chemical imbalance in his blood that was a trigger point of depression.
For the next 42 days, television news was not a part of my life. An emergency appointment was arranged the next morning with my family doctor. The following day, I had a referral appointment with a first-class psychiatrist who was a great listener and approached elements of my problems with a Christian perspective. What was difficult for me to grasp is those two days were just small building blocks. That inbred Type A personality was expecting a quick turnaround. I have likened it to people who balloon 10 to 15 pounds from binge eating between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They either receive gift cards to a fitness center or make their first visit to a wellness facility in months. If they don’t see those 15 pounds roll off in a week, you often hear a phrase common to South Georgia, “I’m not gonna fool with that mess.”
For Steve to be Steve again, two days were just the bottom of the mountain. I was fortunate that my general manager was a kind and patient man. He acknowledged that my 13 months in Jackson had been unlike any he had ever seen in broadcasting and that many assurances made by a previous administration were not delivered. He said, “I want you to take whatever time you need to get well.” He also said something that didn’t raise my spirits: “We’re not paying you to do a $100,000-a-year job. We’re paying you to do a $38,000 job.” I never thought the salary was the basis on whether one did a job the right way.
My doctors strongly recommended that I not watch any newscasts until they cleared me to do so. When that call was made, I thought back to the pack of guys on the RTNDA floor who seemingly couldn’t go 15 minutes without calling back to their stations. My doctors’ prescription would have been a proverbial death sentence to those guys.
“You need a complete calming and a distance from what has put you in this situation,” I was told, “but you’re going to have to be patient with yourself. This is not going to be a quick fix. You’re going to have better days but it’s going to take time for the medication to work and we may have to make some adjustments. This is going to be a gradual, incremental process. You are physically exhausted as well as emotionally drained.”
He assured me that I was not “bipolar,” which today has a connotation many people automatically attach to depression. I learned that depression is anything but one size fits all. Depression is of varying degrees and depths in different people. Only a minority of depression sufferers develop suicidal thoughts.
My grade was defined as “clinical depression,” which is brought on by at least four to five symptoms over a period of at least two weeks. In my case, I was experiencing exhaustion and chronic fatigue, excessive guilt (over making the job decision to come to Jackson and inability to see faster progress at the station), significant weight loss (I had fallen to 155 pounds on a 6-foot-2 1/2 frame), reduced pleasure in daily activities, and loss of sleep despite a consistent desire to sleep more.
My enforced exile from the newsroom was underway. The journalist in me had the inclination to turn on Channel 7 and see what we were doing. The realist in me recognized my doctors were right. I could not recover fully if I exposed myself, even just in my living room, to the environment that contributed to my breakdown. I struggled with worry that I may not be able to continue in the job or possibly would be asked to step down from my job if I required an extended recovery period. Regardless, this was not a “take two tablets and call me tomorrow” type of journey. In this instance, improvement would be in incremental bits.
My first reaction to the prescribed medication was that I had become another person. My emotions, responses and even the tempo of my speech had become slow. Concerned that I was having a series of bad side effects, I phoned my doctor. I was assured the meds were doing exactly as they were supposed to do. All of us have neurotransmitters that affect our emotions and our behavior. I had been so wired and intense that the physical me contributed to the deterioration of the emotional me. My meds were designed to slow me down, even significantly so, in order to rebuild me.
Journalism, the constant deadlines, and the consistent “what-have-you-done-for-me-yesterday?” nature of the profession can make Type A personalities, such as myself, overachievers and highly-driven professionals candidates for depression. Sometimes, the perfect storm of chemical makeup + physical stamina + emotional fatigue collides the same as when intense warm fronts and cold fronts meet to create thunderstorms or tornadoes.
Four weeks into my recovery, which included weekly visits to my counselor, I was beginning to feel stronger. I decided the time had come to try returning to the office, even if just for a few hours a day.
I walked in the back door of the old newsroom, which was a wing of a Quonset hut. The minute I entered, I had to turn right around and leave. Despite seeing smiles on the faces of concerned people in the newsroom, all I heard was a chorus of hellos. I erupted into tears again as I headed to the car.
I had a variety of emotions pass through my mind. Did this mean I was weak, too weak to work in television again? No, my doctor reassured me. I just pulled the trigger too fast. Did this indicate I would not recover? No. I was going to have to manage myself much better than I had in the past, but the day would come when I would be fine. I was simply going to have to be more patient with myself.
That’s a huge key for depression sufferers, no matter the profession. You have to be patient with yourself for your recovery. Some people can reassemble the parts faster than others. This is not like the flu where one is zapped, but usually is back in business in nine to ten days. The reason many journalists are not patient with their own recoveries is that the field in which they work is an inconvenient and frequently impatient profession. You are embedded in a culture that often is enslaved to a time deadline multiple times a day. The show has to go on. When you are recovering from depression, at times the show cannot go on. One has to learn a characteristic that is often missing from television news, college football, and even church congregations—patience.
Two weeks later, I made a successful return to the newsroom but I had to make a gradual re-acclimation. I worked half-days to three-quarter days for six weeks before I had the stamina to handle a full workload. The environment was still not ideal but I proved to myself that I could handle it. We began to make substantive improvements in our news ratings. That was good for the station and for advertising sales. I cannot honestly say I found the gains personally satisfying because I was still emerging from the most difficult recovery I had ever experienced. I began to put into perspective that rating points, as important as they are in the television industry, are pale when compared to one’s health.
Late the following year, I made a calculated decision to leave WBBJ and accept a job as professor of broadcast journalism at Union University in Jackson. I had never heard of Union until I moved here. The relationship was a sea change for me. I began the long transition from active practitioner to teacher and coach of students who want to join the profession I began in 1976. I quickly learned the process was more deliberate and calm than in the frenetic activity of the TV newsroom. At that point in my life, slowing down was a good thing.
My boss, Dr. Kina Mallard—now president of Reinhardt University in Georgia and one of the finest immediate superiors anyone could ever have—asked an early question during the interview period. “What do you think you could do, if you could dream big, that could best help students toward a future career?” she asked. The dream I expressed was to do a daily television newscast on cable with students. Sound bizarre? The idea probably was but I felt the ultimate lab experience would involve replicating the newsroom and production experience they would eventually face.
I had to wait 15 years on that dream to materialize. In 2008, fiber optics were finally accessible from our studio to Jackson Energy Authority’s head end in downtown Jackson. In October 2008, “Jackson 24/7” launched as what the academic community calls “teaching hospital.” We moved the learning center for students into a studio-as-classroom laboratory. The experiential learning proved to be a boon for twentysomethings anxious to drive their personal career preparation trains to a new level. The transition also came with a personal cost.
I already had the experience of the demands of running a television newsroom and what at times are excessive stresses. What I underestimated in the laboratory situation was the added hours of preparation time for me to have the basics ready for my student anchors, reporters and producers to deliver a 12 noon newscast Monday through Friday. For the first two years of “Jackson 24/7,” I found myself in the building far too many evenings after my talented colleagues departed. Part of this was the perfectionism in me (which does not exist in certain alternate areas of my life); another part was the burning desire to deliver a quality product for a local cable system committed to community programming.
Those hours began to mount. Fatigue began to slowly set in night after night. Much as happened nearly 20 years earlier, I saw an emotional and physical train wreck coming for about a month but seemed powerless to let go of the root causes.
Finally, after a Thursday edition of “Jackson 24/7,” our resident psychologist Dr. Joanne Stephenson waited until all of the other guests and students were gone. She looked me squarely in the eye and said: “THIS…..is an intervention.” I knew exactly what she meant. I broke into tears as she forthrightly said, “If we don’t do something now, you’re going to be dead by Christmas.” When someone of Dr. Joanne’s experience uses the word “dead,” one with any degree of intelligence listens. I asked how she knew I was struggling. She said, “I could see it in your eyes for the last month. You can’t keep going on like this. One problem is you make this look too easy and no one on this campus recognizes the amount of work it takes to pull this off every day with students.” She was particularly correct about that. In many schools attempting to craft a daily newscast, the department has multiple professors in a journalism or communications school or department working together toward that end. In my case, I was it. Both journalism and production were under my umbrella—no co-professor(s). Remember the old story at WBBJ of attempting to do the work of three people. I forgot that lesson. Dr. Joanne said, “You’re in depression. You are not weak. You are not a failure. You just cannot keep up that constant amount of work and survive.”
As we continued what was a life-altering discussion, I told Dr. Joanne of an added issue that was not part of my first bout with depression. At our university, we look for any excuse to celebrate: someone’s birthday, a milestone anniversary, or a departmental meeting—any of these typically brings out the fellowship in my colleagues. I am usually right in the middle of it either injecting humor or enjoying someone else’s. Merely a few days before Dr. Joanne’s intervention, we were celebrating a fellow professor’s birthday. The volume level and laughter, which I have perpetually enjoyed, was emotionally almost sending me to the ceiling. I had to run, not just walk, to my office and close the door. The same thing had happened at my church the previous week between Sunday School and the worship service. I was experiencing anxiety attacks for the first time in my life. Dr. Paul Deschenes, another respected psychologist, told me certain types of depression have a companion in anxiety. Clinical depression is one of them.
The prescription: in addition to returning to medication that was a lower grade than I was on in 1991, I was ordered to do something that was extremely difficult. Spring break was approaching. “Jackson 24/7” went into “evergreen” mode during extended holidays (compilations of key news stories and interviews from previous broadcasts). Dr. Joanne directed me not to come on or near the Union campus during that nine-day layoff. “I don’t even want to hear that you have come here to have a workout,” she said. “You need some distance and calming from the environment that has created the depression.” I had begun a daily workout regimen in 2003, just before my 49th birthday. Staying away from the elliptical and treadmill for more than a week was not on my agenda. “I want you to get out in the sunshine and walk,” Dr. Joanne said. “Four, five, even six miles a day. Go to a park and be outside, put some music or something you enjoy on headphones and just walk. It will be just as satisfying as coming in for a workout and it will be better for your overall mental health.” I did just that and the entire routine was refreshing. During a couple of those days, I averaged eight miles of walking.
Something greatly different from my previous experience, other than the anxiety, was a decision that was risky. I continued to work while I battled the depression. That is definitely not to be recommended for everyone. I was able to tolerate the medication sufficiently to carry on, but I worked hard every day to mask the symptoms from my students. To this day, I doubt if any knew what I was internally experiencing. What I discovered in this instance was that putting on the facade of being okay was expending so much energy that on the back end, when I arrived home at night, I was drained.
My diagnosis was in March 2010. Thankfully, spring break and the approaching summer hiatus provided necessary respites that aided in my recovery. I did not feel my full self again until early August. However, I could see the finish line coming by mid-June.
I had another reoccurrence in the summer of 2014 which was part occupation-related and part the lingering aftermath of my father’s death. After he broke a hip in late May 2013, I spent an entire summer as caregiver and administrator for both of my parents. No one has a greater appreciation for daily caregivers and how their responsibilities can wear them down than do I. I spent 80 days in South Georgia tending to their needs and watching my father slowly deteriorate. I transitioned back to campus with only two days remaining before the semester. I was physically and emotionally spent from the unplanned summer and just not ready for the transition. Again, I had to seek the relief from medication and counseling. In this case, I should have attempted to take a sabbatical but at our university, you need to receive a Pew research grant to be considered for that kind of extended time away. The reinforcement I had from my family and my colleagues was exceptional in helping me to bounce back.
Today, I still take a low-grade medication, a generic of Lexapro, that keeps life from having too many deep drops. I still have my days where I am not 100 percent (who does?). Particularly during the days of late fall through mid-winter when the sun sets between 4:30 and 5 p.m. in the Central time zone, I have some down spots—not a crash but the same kinds of struggles as people with seasonal affective disorder face. We have too few hours of sunshine. If a winter has consecutive days of gray skies, I am just not as internally upbeat as when I arrive at work to a dazzling sun.
Could I have yet another serious bout with depression? Sure. Anyone who has had it knows that perfect storm can align between your emotions and your physical being and you can again be down in the depths. What I have learned is how to manage myself better and to recognize that no one broadcast, no one segment, no one set of circumstances is worth sacrificing one’s health. I can still have my moments but my students describe my personality as mellow these days. That is definitely a good thing.
I have also made adjustments to my overall schedule that are working. I am in the studio less than I once was, though still more hours in prep time than the average professor exercises for most classes. I am gradually learning to say “no” to many requests that once led to an automatic “yes.” However, our office administrative assistant said recently to me, “When are you going to learn how to say ‘no’ even more?” She is right and I am still trying to pull that tug-of-war to more on the “no” side than on the “yes.”
In 2015, I embarked on a new mission: openly discussing my bouts with depression, defining what it is, how I overcame it and how I still deal with it, sometimes for days in a row. I became convicted of the need to do this after the suicide death of actor Robin Williams from extreme depression-related causes. When that story appeared on my iPad on a Monday evening, I said to a journalist friend, “We’re going to all of a sudden see a rash of stories about depression, its causes and its treatment…..and some of them will not be thorough or accurate. We’ll be flooded with talk about depression for about three weeks, maybe four and then it will all be forgotten.” As I said in an on-air news commentary the next day: “We should not need the death of an international celebrity to jump-start a discussion about mental illness, of which depression is a widespread component.”
What do I have to fear? That someone who still lives in ignorance and stigma will offer a slur because I have experienced mental illness?
So now, I tell my own story to church groups, civic organizations and—most recently—to the Union University student body, most of whom had no idea that I have had a 26-year battle with depression. I agreed to talk about my experience in a chapel service because I know the numbers of that student body who have made appointments in the past year for counseling because of difficulty coping or even outright depression symptoms. If we could help even one student realize that this is something one has to treat just like a broken leg, something you would not attempt to repair yourself, and get help, then every opportunity is well worth it.
I am occasionally told, “Thank you for your courage in telling your story.” No thanks are necessary. The man who paved the way for me was my father. That’s the man who had the courage to start discussing his battle with depression in public back in the 1990’s when the stigma was beginning to melt away but still was a silent topic for many sufferers even within their own families.
I will go to any television (or newspaper/digital) newsroom of any kind in America and spend an hour or two discussing depression and how to deal with the warning signs and symptoms of it. The offer is a standing one. All it takes is a phone call or an email. I say that but most TV news departments are so busy covering from six to 10 hours of day of local newscasts, largely understaffed, that they do not have time to schedule even a short seminar on what could be a life-saving or, at the very least, an emotion-saving message.
Journalists are in one of the most stress-driven professions in the nation. They are multi-deadline driven every day. They see death, dying and violence on a perpetual basis. They are on call 24/7 to go to the next emergency call. If they are married, they have to juggle family life with the demands of their jobs—often akin to rowing a boat in nine-foot tidal waves. Some work for bad bosses. Others work for screamers. Many days find them fortunate to be able to wolf down unhealthy fast food because of the need to head to the next story.
Many deal with those demands and pressures quite well. Others struggle with them but refuse to admit those internal challenges because of the constant preaching of mental toughness and the fear that to admit warning signs of depression is a suggestion of weakness—-something further from the truth than North Dakota is from Texas. Some have succumbed to depression but have a similar story to mine—they sought help and received the right kind of help and gradually regained their full physical and mental health. Sadly, a percentage have refused to seek help and have slid down a dark path, occasionally even to suicide.
The time has long passed for us to wipe out any stigma of this illness and openly discuss what depression is, how it is not one size fits all, and how to deal with it before it becomes all-consuming. I reach out especially to any journalists who have been there or are at that point right now. You do have hope. You can make it back. You have to do your part. You have to accept you need help, get the help, do what you are told, take your medication, and be patient with yourself to recover.
Depression need not be “the silent illness” any longer.