“I didn’t know what was the matter with me. All I knew was that I was feeling lower than a snake’s belly…I remember we used to go to restaurants, and I’d say ‘Everybody’s pointing at me, the cheat, the fraud, the fake.’ You really believe these things Astonishing!”
Mike Wallace, who died April 7 at the age of 93, will be probably be remembered by most people as a legendary, take-no-prisoners interviewer (according to his 2005 memoir “Between You and Me,” he was given the title of “The Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition” even before “60 Minutes” launched in 1968). But to many others, he’ll be remembered as one of the first public figures who was brave enough to open up about his clinical depression, including the suicide attempt that led to his depression diagnosis and treatment.
In 1984 Wallace was dealing not only with the breakup of his marriage of nearly 30 years, but also a libel suit brought by General Westmoreland against Wallace and CBS over a documentary about the Vietnam War. The case went to trial in the fall of 1984. Eventually, the stress of the trial and the attacks on Wallace’s reputation and integrity by the plaintiff’s attorney and the media began to take their toll. He started having trouble sleeping and lost both his appetite and his interest in doing things he normally enjoyed. “Like most people, I’d been down in the dumps on other occasions for one reason or another, but never before had I experienced this kind of constant, mind-wracking despondency.”
Wallace consulted his family doctor, a friend of his, who told him, “You’re a tough guy. You’ll get through it.” When his friend Mary, who he married in 1986, brought up depression, the doctor was quick to say, “Forget the word depression, because that’ll be bad for your image.”
Wallace struggled on with his depression until the end of the year, when he attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills. Mary called an ambulance, and Wallace was taken to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped. There he finally was diagnosed with depression, and started treatment with talk therapy and antidepressants.
Like many people, he discontinued his antidepressant after a time (against his doctor’s advice), believing that he no longer needed it. In addition, the side effects of the first antidepressant he took, Ludiomil, were problematic. Wallace subsequently had two relapses into depression, and during the last one, in 1993, he was prescribed Zoloft. He decided that staying on the antidepressant for the rest of his life was “a small price to pay.”
For a while, he did not talk about his depression. The public announcement about the hospitalization following his suicide attempt said that he was suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” “I was ashamed. It was a confession of weakness. For years, depression meant the crazy house. As I look back at it, it just seems damned foolishness. Really, really damned foolishness.”
Eventually, he said, “I gradually came around to the view that if I talked about my experience in public, it just might help others come to a better and more accurate understanding of depression.” Along with William Styron and Art Buchwald, two of his close friends who also suffered from depression, he appeared at mental health fund-raising events (they called themselves “the Blues Brothers”).
Wallace was an unlikely public “face” of depression, one whose contribution to the public acceptance of depression cannot be overstated. For a man of his generation, a public figure, to expose the most painful side of his personal life in order to help erase the stigma of depression and encourage others to get help was an incredibly courageous and generous act.
Cronkite, K. (1994). On the Edge of Darkness. New York, NY: Delta.
Puma, M. (Producer) (2009). Mike Wallace: Depression [Television series episode]. In Statz-Smith, T. (Executive Producer), Healthy Minds. WLIW21. Retrieved from http://watch.wliw.org/video/1317618543/
Wallace, M., & Gates, G. P. (2007). Between You and Me: A Memoir. New York, NY: Hyperion eBook.
Creator, Wing of Madness