On Topic: Depression is 'beyond description'

I  saw the signs, but at the time they meant little to me, or I drastically misinterpreted them.

The untied shoe laces, the unbuttoned collars on his button-down Oxford shirt, the increasing lateness to work, the apparent lethargy, less enthusiasm for his projects — a definite edge that had been there was absent, as if the interior light of his being hadn’t so much completely gone out but now was dimmed.

Then one Monday he didn’t show up at the office at all. Calls to his apartment during the day went unanswered.

One of my editors and I were discussing going over there to check up on him when he finally telephoned. He was, he told me, at his parents’ home on the other side of the state, where he’d been since the weekend.

The young, talented man told me he was suffering from a resurgence of severe depression. He had no idea when he would feel well enough to return and so thought it best that he quit.

We talked for quite awhile that late afternoon. I suggested a leave of absence, maybe a few days off.

But he politely, tiredly declined. I could tell by his voice — or believed I could, when I thought about it later — that he was lying down. I could sense he’d also concluded that I didn’t fully grasp what he was telling me.

And he was right.

William Styron, best known for his novel “Sophie’s Choice,” described depression in his courageous memoir, “Darkness Visible,” as “a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive … as to verge close to being beyond description.”

He ticked off a who’s who of the famous who had suffered from the disease, from painter Vincent van Gogh and poet Sylvia Plath to writer Ernest Hemingway and Marshalltown-born actress Jean Seberg.

As to its cause, experts contend depression can be built up from a toxic recipe of genetic, environmental and genetic determinants.

From a business perspective, we’ve come to learn that depression, by hampering employee productivity, is bilking companies for a lot.

The University of Michigan’s Depression Center reports that depression costs the American economy some $83 billion annually. Lost productivity accounts for about $44 billion a year of that, in absenteeism and in what the university deems “pre-absenteeism” — when employees suffering from depression are unable to perform their duties as well as they could in peak times or as well as others.

Not that it’s something bantered about in the break room.

Today’s employees seem to have little hesitancy chatting openly about diabetes or their heart issues. But when was the last time you heard someone confide, “I got in late this morning because I was so depressed I had a hard time just getting out of bed”?

The conventional misperception is that depression isn’t a true disease — that it’s not as serious as diabetes or arrhythmia. Whistle a happy tune and you’ll snap right out of it.

In fact, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report cited by the University of Michigan, only 58 percent of adults who believe they suffer from depression seek help because of this common attitude.

That stigma makes employees even more reluctant to seek help in a tough job market, notes Debra Jay, a clinical interventionist and co-author of “Love First: A Family’s Guide to Intervention” among other books on the topic (and, in full disclosure, a longtime friend whom I called last week to discuss this column).

Depression sometimes can lead to other, potentially costlier issues, too, including substance and alcohol abuse, she adds.

Styron wrote that his personal “cloud” involved alcohol, which he used and abused for 40 years “to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long somewhere in the dungeons of my spirit.”

But, Jay says, studies now show that when the employer is involved — offering support and providing information on how and where to receive professional counseling, such as through an employee-assistance program — along with help from family members, success can be “almost 100 percent” in getting employees to accept treatment.

Yes, depression still is tricky stuff, to be sure — employees are afraid to seek help, assuming they even recognize their own symptoms, and willing employers often don’t know where the lines are and when they should step in to lend a hand.

But sometimes, an honest hand at the right moment might be exactly what can make all the difference.

•Michael Chevy Castranova is Sunday editor of The Gazette. (319) 398-5873;

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