May 3, 2004

'Blues Brothers' talk about depression        

By Eric Rangus

For a panel on depression, everyone sure laughed a lot.

Two Pulitzer Prize winners—humorist Art Buchwald and author William Styron—and “60 Minutes” co-anchor Mike Wallace (owner of 20 Emmys and three Peabodys, among other honors) were the high-wattage panelists for “An Evening with ‘The Blues Brothers’: A Panel Discussion on Depression,” Tuesday, April 27, at the Skyland Trail treatment center.

Gifted storytellers all, the three men mixed humorous anecdotes with sober recollections of their battles against depression. Skyland Trail co-sponsored the panel with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“My mantra is, ‘Don’t do anything to hurt yourself, like commit suicide, because you might change your mind two weeks later,’” said Buchwald, who coined “Blues Brothers” to describe the trio, all of whom own homes on Martha’s Vine-yard and have been friends for years. Their casual chemistry was seamless.

Buchwald suffered from depression in 1963, was treated, then was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1987 and again treated. Dressed in a green jacket that contrasted with the collection of blue and gray suits on stage, Buchwald stood out in more ways than one.

“I was suicidal,” Buchwald continued. “But I was afraid the day I did it, I wouldn’t appear in the New York Times obits. I knew for sure that [French President Charles] De Gaulle would die the same day and take all my space,” he said, breaking up the crowd not only with his words but also his un-subtle, arm-waving delivery.

Buchwald went public with his first depression, and he helped both Wallace and Styron overcome their battles. “You’re in pain. You’re lower than a snake’s belly,” said Wallace, his unmistakable, rich baritone echoing through the converted gymnasium that served as a meeting hall. He plunged into depression during a court case in the 1980s involving a libel suit by Gen. William Westmoreland.

“You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, and you’re ashamed,” Wallace continued. “That’s the worst part because you don’t want to tell anyone how you are feeling. But that fellow over there in the green jacket, which has nothing to do with The Masters,” Wallace said, pointing across the stage at Buchwald. “He knew.”

Immediately following his fashion commentary, Wallace called Buchwald a hero. “Every night Art was on the phone asking, ‘How was your day?’” Wallace said. “I can’t tell you how important that was.”

Styron, too, thanked Buchwald with helping him.

“I found myself walking the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, totally lost,” said Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. He battled not only depression but alcoholism, as well. “It was inconceivable pain. I was completely adrift.”

Styron also credited Buchwald for being there to help. “It was my saving grace, having Art there, really, 24 hours a day.”

“If you talk to people, it helps you,” Buchwald said, stressing the importance of a support network. “You’ve got to have some backup—family or friends.”

The trio discussed how depression affected their careers, how their families dealt with it, and how they sought treatment. Tom Johnson, retired chief executive officer of
CNN and a man who also has battled depression, was moderator.

“Depression seized each one of these three as it did me,” Johnson said. “But we made it through.”

Joining the Blues Brothers on stage were Charles Nemeroff, Reunette W. Harris Professor and Chair of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, and William McDonald, associate professor of psychology and behavioral sciences and director of the Fuqua Center for Late-Life Depression. Nemeroff and McDonald discussed depression from a clinical standpoint and fielded the majority of audience questions as they dealt primarily with treatment and research of depression.

“I’ve never seen so many of my patients in one room,” Nemeroff joked to the crowd of 400 who attended the invitation-only event. “I’m trying really hard to resist group
therapy right now.”

Not all the questions came from the audience, however. Wallace, visibly shifting into journalist mode, asked several, as did Buchwald, who posed one of the most affecting, “Why do we laugh at the word ‘depression?’”

“We always laugh at things that scare us,” Nemeroff answered. “People ask that we don’t tell anyone that they suffer from depression. You don’t get that with osteoporosis or heart disease.”

The “Blues Brothers” came together when Dottie Fuqua, co-founder of the Fuqua center, introduced Johnson to Nancy Stern, Skyland Trail’s director of development. They asked Buchwald, who has spoken frequently about his condition, to appear. He then recruited Styron and Wallace. Stern, along with Sara Parker, psychiatry’s development director, coordinated the event.

Wallace, for one, was glad he attended. “This is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ve never sat in on a discussion of this nature that was so useful and everyone was so candid.”

Skyland Trail, located near the intersection of N. Druid Hills Road and Buford Highway, is a nationally recognized schizophrenia and depression treatment facility.