Dead Blue: Surviving Depression

Author William Styron astutely suggests the word "melancholia" as a substitute for "clinical depression," and it works on just about every level described in HBO's "America Undercover" series' clarifying docu about this enemy of the mind.

Author William Styron astutely suggests the word “melancholia” as a substitute for “clinical depression,” and it works on just about every level described in HBO’s “America Undercover” series’ clarifying docu about this enemy of the mind. Styron, newsman Mike Wallace and psychologist Martha Manning talk openly of what happened to them and how they and their loved ones have reached emotional sunlight. Hour’s an important service and a must.

With 18 million Americans suffering from the illness and some 18,000 annually killing themselves because of its effects, “Dead Blue” and its three participants could help not only the recognized ill but those as yet undiagnosed patients, their friends and relatives.

Wallace, testifying first, describes the agonies of his ordeals. He’s endured three episodes before reaching his present stability. His “60 Minutes” boss Don Hewitt knew nothing about it, while those around Wallace kept their observations quiet.

It seems to have started about the time of the Gen. Westmoreland suit against CBS, and Wallace tells of the feelings of inadequacy he was suffering. Wallace’s wife, Mary, reports on how much he changed — “That’s where the grieving comes in … You’re totally cut out.”

When the “60 Minutes” personnel visited Phil Donahue’s program, Wallace called in to the live telecast from bed as if everything were normal; he’d been unable to gather enough strength to go.

He’s been restored, according to him, with the help of prescribed drugs and psychotherapy. The antidepressant drug presents its disturbing side effects — but they’re far more desirable than the abyss he describes. Wallace’s recognition of his sickness is refreshingly candid; he has tracked his symptoms and frightening experiences in the tradition of good reporting.

Psychologist Manning, suspecting she may have inherited her depression, tries analyzing her childhood feelings and why she became sick. “Depression is a component of me,” she has decided. Her psychotherapist didn’t help, and the medicine she was taking failed her as she became semi-suicidal. Manning’s husband thinks back on those gloomy days as being “on automatic pilot.”

She didn’t like the stigma of going into a hospital’s psychiatric wing, but that’s where she landed, and where she received electro-convulsive shock treatments. Aware of the public concept of the therapy, she notes that she was put to sleep during the one-second jolt, and that she awoke with a hangover. Just what the electricity does to the brain isn’t explored; the docu’s a collection of experiences, not a medical exam.

Styron says forthrightly, “You’re not depressed, you’re insane.” When you’re trapped in clinical depression, nothing, he says, animates the body or the spirit. His first indication was that he suddenly couldn’t tolerate alcohol, and soon found that the customary walk through the woods held a nightmarish quality.

While he was plagued by a “constant suicidal fantasia,” wife Rose was baffled by his behavior toward her. His daughter says she didn’t know how to “make contact” with him, confessing that the illness “breaks open the whole family.”

Styron was afraid to go to the hospital, afraid he’d be put away. He did eventually go for seven weeks, and emerged alive again (his treatment isn’t touched on here).

Program may not define “clinical depression,” probably because it can’t be wholly pinned down. But it brings the mental illness to the attention of viewers who’ve confused it with everyday depression, or the blues. Styron notes that depression for him was similar to having a split personality in which the so-called normal side observes the melancholic side with considerable horror.

The three testifiers are courageous, and it is of inestimable value to have three intelligent people who have endured this debility recall their experiences. Those who feel that victims are simply malingerers who need a good shaking may find their eyes opened to an illness that’s on the increase every year.

Well-organized, pointedly personal, happily free of deep-voiced professional medical explanations, “Dead Blue: Surviving Depression” and its three subjects help take some of the darkness out of the “temporary death of a soul,” as Styron flags it, and have undoubtedly given heart to the stricken. Directed unerringly by Eames Yates (Wallace’s stepson), the docu simply lets the people talk. They have plenty to say.

Dead Blue: Surviving Depression

Tues.(6), 10-11 p.m., HBO

  • Production: Filmed by Parco Prods. Producer, John Parsons Peditto; co-producer, Sara M. Chereskin; director, Eames Yates.
  • Cast: Camera (16mm), Greg Andracke, Gary Nardilla, Mark Benjamin; editor, Patrick Gambuti Jr.; sound, Ed Campbell; audio, Mario Poporino, Roger Phenix; music, Peter Fish.