Veteran Journalist Shines Light on Depression's Darkness

Tom Johnson makes it his mission to erase the disease's stigma

Gary Gately

Gary Gately

Published on May 15, 2003

THURSDAY, May 15, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- When it all got to be too much, when the darkness of depression had sapped his last remnants of joy, Tom Johnson would sneak off to a room adjoining his office.

And the one-time publisher of the Los Angeles Times would lie on the floor, waiting for the despair to lift.

At the paper, only his assistant and a friend in human resources knew that one of the most influential figures in journalism often felt like he couldn't bear being alive. He maintained the public persona -- a "Herculean" effort -- because, in the late 1980s, he thought he had no other choice.

"Because of the stigma, people thought of depression and mental illness as a sign of weakness," says Johnson, 61. And in corporate America, he says, "leaders are expected to be supermen and superwomen. But no matter what position you hold in life, depression can hit you."

Behind the facade, his world shrank, eclipsed by depression's shadows. He lost all interest in his beloved Dodgers. He avoided friends and public functions where he'd always thrived. Eventually, he sought the shelter of staying home in bed whenever he could.

Johnson kept his illness out of public view and struggled to wear the mask and the mantel of the corporate executive.

And, in what he now realizes was a big mistake, he didn't heed his wife's initial advice to see a psychiatrist. "I had resisted going to a psychiatrist because, frankly, like with most other things in life, I dealt head-on with it and thought I could work my way through it," he says.

So Johnson started running three to five miles a day. He lost lots of weight, but not the much heavier burden of depression. He finally went to see a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, beginning arduous trial-and-error attempts to find medications that worked, everything from Lithium to Prozac. He experienced serious side effects -- dry mouth, a "zombie-like" wooziness -- but the depression persisted.

The sense of hopelessness grew nearly unbearable in June 1989, when Johnson got word he was being replaced as the Times' publisher. "After that came the darkest periods," he says. "I continued to just spiral downward, and that was when I first started having thoughts of suicide."

He finally found relief more than a year later after moving to Atlanta to become head of CNN News. A psychiatrist prescribed Effexor, a newer antidepressant that acts on two key brain chemicals thought to affect moods.

Johnson went public with his struggle in January 2002, and quickly learned just how many others knew intimately the malaise that William Styron called "darkness visible." From all across the country, calls, notes and e-mails poured in, congratulating Johnson, asking his advice, thanking him for shining a light on a taboo subject.

Today, Johnson is retired from CNN, though still acting as a consultant to the network. But the story this veteran journalist feels most compelled to tell is at once intensely personal and familiar to the 20 million Americans who suffer depression.

He's made it his personal mission to help eliminate the stigma of depression, to demystify the malaise. He knows it's a disease and a life-threatening one. Among the estimated 30,000 Americans who kill themselves each year were some of Johnson's acquaintances: an Atlanta doctor, two business executives, a CNN staffer. None of them, he says, had gotten treatment for their depression.

Perhaps they thought, as he once had, that they could beat it alone. Perhaps others gave them familiar advice with the best of intentions. "Unless you have experienced depression, you can't really describe it," Johnson says. "People want you to get up, get out. They say, 'What's wrong with you? You need more exercise or a better diet.'"

Johnson knows that often, depression sufferers need much more than that. So he keeps telling his story, writing about it, speaking about it. He gives freely of his time and money to support mental health treatment centers. He has testified before Congress and a presidential commission. He advises national health policy leaders like the ones who just launched "Real Men, Real Depression," a massive public-awareness campaign aimed at encouraging men to seek treatment for depression.

He urges insurance companies to stop what he calls discriminatory practices that impose limits on coverage of mental disorders. And he responds personally to pleas for help strangers battling depression.

"It's important for those of us who've had depression to try to help others, to keep others from taking their own lives, to eradicate this stigma that keeps people from telling others, and keep people from getting treatment," Johnson says. "I'm convinced today that, with the right diagnosis and treatment, most people can get better, in most cases, get back to their old selves -- before the depression hit them."

More information

Learn more about the national public-awareness campaign, Real Men, Real Depression. You can take an online depression screening test developed by the New York University School of Medicine.

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