September 27, 1999
Volume 52, No. 6
Humorist Art Buchwald talks openly about depression
In a voice as gravelly as his wit, Pulitzer Prize-winner Art Buchwald began his Sept. 15 lecture with advice on how to become a professional humorist: "First, you have to have an unhappy childhood. I qualified for that at an early age."
Talking about depression has rarely been this much fun. Delivering the second annual Rosalynn Carter Distinguished Lecture in Mental Health Journalism on "Depression's Not All It's Cracked Up To Be," Buchwald kept his 400-plus listeners in stitches even while he delivered his serious message: Mental illness is a potentially deadly disease. But for those who seek help, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The lectureship, established in conjunction with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism and held in collaboration with the journalism program, included introductions by former Emory professor Loren Ghiglione and former first lady Rosalynn Carter, and closing remarks by psychiatry professor Renato Alarcon.
But it was Buchwald's rocky autobiography that captured listeners' attention--the "professional funnyman" was once a foster child, a lonely class clown, a Marine misfit, a depression sufferer and a manic depressive.
"In the Marines, they don't have much use for humorists," he said. "They beat my brains in."
Buchwald's career, which includes 30 books and current syndication in more than 500 newspapers, has been marked not only by his razor-sharp humor but also by what he calls "the black pit" of mental illness. Recalling his hospitalization for depression in 1963 and for manic depression in 1987, Buchwald described the choke hold these disorders once held on his life.
Without adequate hospital care, which temporarily eliminated the suicide option, he might not have survived. And without staff such as the orderly who "rocked me like a baby" during a particularly difficult night, he might never have seen that light at the end of his own tunnel.
"I'll admit that I thought of killing myself," he said. "But I never did--probably because I was afraid I wouldn't make it into the New York Times obituaries."
Since his recovery from mental illness, Buchwald has become a self-admitted "poster boy for depression," using his high-profile status to educate the public about mental health issues. Of primary concern for him is the ongoing stigmatization of mental illness in the workplace, particular as it affects employee promotion, job security and work relationships.
He also said the best way to counter such a damaging stigma is effective use of the media to educate Americans about mental illness. His appearance on "Larry King Live" to discuss depression generated more requests for copies than any show King had yet produced, because people everywhere are eager for straight talk about mental health issues, Buchwald said, and because depression may be more widespread than we think.
Americans need to realize, first, that depression "is just another disease," he argued. As such, it is eminently treatable, but unless a person has personally experienced it, he or she cannot possibly understand what it is like.
"The color changes..." he confessed. "It's a terrifying phenomenon."
Second, Americans need to be taught that many of history's most gifted individuals struggled with mental illness: "Churchill called his depression 'the black dog that follows me everywhere.'"
But at least for Buchwald, the "dog" has finally stopped following. "I am here. I am alive. And I am well." He concluded with a final encouragement to those in the audience suffering from depression: "You, too, can get better. You can become strong enough to fly."