Reports that the police were called to actor Owen Wilson's Santa Monica residence in response to an attempted suicide on Aug. 26 brought to light the actor's battle with depression. Wilson was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for treatment, and his attorney later confirmed that the actor had been taking antidepressants. The 38-year-old has had a hugely successful film career, starring in hit comedies such as "Wedding Crashers" (2005) and earning an Academy Award nomination for his work on "The Royal Tennenbaums" screenplay in 2001. After his hospitalization Wilson dropped out of the cast of the upcoming comedy "Tropical Thunder." However, he did appear in early October at the premier of "The Darjeeling Limited," a comedy about three brothers on a train voyage through India in which he stars. Wilson hasn't responded to questions about the August incident, but he did release a statement asking for privacy immediately afterward: "I respectfully ask that the media allow me to receive care and heal in private during this difficult time."
Wilson's struggle may be unusually public, but he's only one of millions of Americans dealing with some form of depression. About 6 million people are diagnosed with depression each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That number, say experts, may be a severe underestimate, since many who have a depressive illness do not seek treatment. Underreporting may be particularly prevalent among men, who either fail to recognize the symptoms or are reluctant to admit to a mental illness. (Read NEWSWEEK's recent cover story on men and depression here.)
Depressive disorders are not a temporary bad mood but rather a persistent state of sadness that interferes with aspects of everyday life, such as working, sleeping and enjoying activities that were once pleasurable. The causes of depression are a mix of genetics and environment. Some forms of depression have been shown to run in families. Bipolar disorder, for example, is highly heritable. A number of life events can act as triggers; a major trauma, such as the loss of a spouse or close friend, can trigger a depressive state in those who are vulnerable. Alcohol or drug dependence often masks depression in men.
Major depression is associated with more sick days and higher rates of short-term disability than other chronic diseases, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And if depressive disorders go undiagnosed they can have even more devastating effects. Suicide attempts are tied to ongoing depression; an estimated 90 percent of those who die by suicide exhibited depressive symptoms. More recent research, released this summer, linked depression to a higher risk for heart disease and type II diabetes.
A preliminary screening questionnaire can help patients determine whether they should seek medical help. While the appropriate treatment varies largely depending on the individual case and often includes some form of "talk therapy," antidepressant drugs have been prescribed in increasing numbers over the past two decades. Adult use of these medications almost tripled between 1994 and 2000, according to the most recent report by the National Center for Health Statistics (2004). But antidepressants have not proved to be a cure-all for those who suffer from serious depression. A recent study in the Journal of American Psychiatry found that antidepressants may be responsible for a rise in the risk of suicide among teenagers. And some researchers believe that antidepressants pose similar risks for some adults as well.
For more information on the signs of depression and how to seek help, check NEWSWEEK's resource box.