Doug Duncan’s vocal dealings with depression serve as inspiration

Petula Dvorak
Columnist November 29, 2012

When Doug Duncan announced that he was struggling with clinical depression and dropped out of the 2006 Maryland gubernatorial race, the Montgomery county executive stunned plenty of people and inspired others. Suddenly, some folks with mental health issues found the courage to ask for help.

“We did get a lot of calls when that happened,” said Stefanie Moreno, deputy executive director of the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Now Duncan, 57, is at it again, this time by announcing that he’s running for county executive. In doing so, he’s sweeping away the secrecy and stigma that have always dogged politicians who need treatment for mental health conditions.

Remember, George McGovern bounced Thomas Eagleton from the 1972 presidential ticket when it was learned he had shock therapy for depression. And the depression of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill is only talked about in hindsight.

Besides former congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), there are few politicians who have announced their depression publicly and returned to successful political careers.

Duncan comes from a family with a history of depression that was so well-known that the state of Maryland turned it into a case study in the 1930s.

Duncan went about his recovery with that in mind, working hard on the process of getting well.

“When it comes to depression, recovery is really a lot like alchemy,” said Lucinda Jewell, chairman of the board at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, a peer-led support group based in Chicago with branches across the United States.

The treatment of depression is different for every person, whether it’s medication, exercise, nutrition or therapy, Jewell said. It’s not just popping a pill and getting back to work. It’s a process, and the process is rarely something people talk about, either.

Duncan was very vocal about his own process — how he tried different medications and methods. Getting this specific about treatment is akin to coming out of the closet, Jewell said.

“It’s like taking a page from the playbook of the gay community — coming out,” Jewell said. “And then people can look around at those who talk about their depression, and it’s ‘Oh, it’s my minister,’ ‘It’s my local policeman,’ ‘It’s my brother.’ ”

Moreno constantly reminds people that one out of five Americans will have some type of mental health issues sometime.

And the 18,000 or so calls that the Montgomery County association’s hotline received last year prove it. The number of calls grew throughout the recession as people struggled with unemployment, debt and foreclosure.

“It always comes back to employment, housing, relationship breakups,” Moreno said. “And the underlying factor is employment. When that changes, it affects so many other aspects.”

In what may be an alternative measure of economic recovery, Moreno said hotline calls have leveled off this year.

Still, as a clinical social worker who sees patients all the time, she continues to be shocked at the stigma that reaching out for help carries. People are frightened that others will know.

“It’s like cancer 30 years ago, whispered across the table,” Moreno said. “It’s so incredibly frustrating.”

So when a big, jovial guy such as Duncan goes public to talk about his depression — and then shows the world that he’s back in the game — that has social workers everywhere doing the happy dance.

His coming out, and now watching the full circle of his recovery, may turn out to be the best thing Duncan has done for the people of Maryland. And beyond.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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