Guest Blogger: Helen Singer, MPH
This spring, after several of my close friends and family reached out to share the news that Mike Wallace, the legendary investigative journalist and “60 Minutes” anchor, had died, I sat down and had a good cry. It was as if I had lost a favorite uncle.
I know that it probably sounds strange that I was so personally affected by the passing of a famous newsman whose life was seemingly very different and removed from mine, but the fact is that Mike Wallace played a significant role in my decision to do what I do at CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention (DVP).
Let me try to explain. In 1996, after purposefully stopping the medication that I knew had helped me, I was in the middle of my third—and thankfully last—major struggle with severe and debilitating depression. I had gone to spend the day at my parents’ house where I could basically hide out and not have to keep up the façade of being “OK.”
From my cocoon of misery on their sofa, I heard the phone ring, mom answered, said something typically Southern to the caller like, “Well bless your heart!” and then, “Helen, Mike Wallace is on the phone for you.” Those words turned out to be a lifeline and one of the best gifts I have ever been given.
It seems that my mother had seen Mr. Wallace speaking out about his recovery from depression on TV and had written a letter to him describing my struggle. We had both experienced the desolation and sheer terror of living with major depression. The connection was strong enough to move Mr. Wallace to pick up his phone in Manhattan and reach out to this young woman in Commerce, Georgia whom he had never met.
I will never forget that when I answered he said, “Helen, this is Mike Wallace. Your mother wrote and told me what you are going through. I have been there myself, and it is hell. Now, why won’t you take your medication?” I said that I hated the idea that I was “damaged goods” who had to take medicine every day just to be “normal.” He acknowledged his own deep sense of shame and helplessness in the throes of depression. He went on to explain that he had always been someone who refused to even take an aspirin for a headache, but that he would be taking his antidepressant every day for the rest of his life and be grateful that the treatment existed.
Comparing notes on shame and helplessness with Mike Wallace was an almost surreal experience on one hand. On the other hand, it was a very human and comforting connection that really did change my life.
That gets me back to why I do what I do at DVP. There is so much pain in the world—pain from disease, violence, social inequalities and injustices, and there are no quick fixes or easy answers. We all have to work hard and continuously to create and maintain the conditions that make hope and security—even in the face of adversity—a real possibility for everyone.
I am health scientist at DVP because it allows me the opportunity to do some of that work. At DVP, we have strong research that shows that building connectedness—at the individual, family, community, and societal level, and encouraging safe, secure, nurturing relationships is protective against violence—suicide and child maltreatment particularly. Regular social contact, strong family attachments, involvement in community activities, access to services, and communication among helping organizations are most important.
On an individual level, it is exactly these types of connections and relationships that led to that phone call from Mike Wallace that gave me back my life. (He actually called me back about six months later to check on me and see how I was doing—amazing!)
The work of DVP is not easy—attempting to understand patterns of violence, risk and protection against such patterns, developing and testing prevention programs, and building bridges between research and practice can be daunting and, frankly, sometimes feels esoteric and quite removed from the impact that we are all so eager to see. However, it is my lived experience that there is real power in the connections we are trying to develop. If we can encourage and sustain these connections at the population level, I believe we really do have a chance to prevent violence and suffering.