News of the death by suicide of Walter Cronkite's grandson, Peter, age 22, is another painful public reminder of the lethal potential of untreated mental illness. Cronkite took his own life over the weekend of April 25 in his dorm room at Colby College in Maine. He was just weeks away from graduation and was set to receive an award for excellence in his classics major.
News reports described him as intelligent, kind, and incredibly likeable — traits that made him a popular young man. He was the sports editor of the Colby College student newspaper and a member of the school's rugby team.
I have no idea whether this young man had been suffering in silence or had reached out for professional help. In spite of the tragic outcome I would hope he had been taking steps to try to overcome his pain and capture the sense of hope and optimism that is particular to so many young men and women as they embark on their adult lives. As is proper, most of us will never know the answer. But what we do know is that the only thing that separated Peter Cronkite from the scores of other young people in similar pain was his famous last name.
The vast majority of people who commit suicide are suffering from clinical depression — an all too common mental illness that can be successfully treated in most cases. But depression can be a sneaky disorder that makes it difficult for sufferers to realize what the problem is and to seek appropriate support and treatment. Men in particular are more likely to hide their pain and detach from their feelings by using alcohol and other substances or to become distracted by things like work or food.
Men and women also tend to experience depression in different ways. Where women might report feelings such as sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in friends and activities, depression in men is more commonly reflected in physical complaints such as headaches, stomach issues, and chronic problems such as back pain.
The point is that men experience depression in ways that make it easier to hide what's really happening from others and from themselves. And while men suffer from depression at about half the rate of women, men are about four times more likely than women to die from suicide.
Men with depression also have a greater tendency to behave in ways that actively push people away — people who could potentially offer life-saving help. Examples of depression symptoms in men may include irritability, aggressiveness, and even hostility — behaviors that, when added to men's general reluctance to talk about depressed feelings, make it harder for concerned others to attempt to "go there."
Regardless of gender, depression can be a terribly isolating disease. And even now in the 21st century it still carries the stigmas of weakness, vulnerability, even laziness. Add to that our cultural norms defining what a man's character should be and you have a potentially lethal double whammy that, for many men, means suffering in silence.
Peter Cronkite's grandfather, Walter, was one of the world's most famous and respected communicators—a journalist who shed tears on national TV while covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It's sad and even ironic to imagine that his grandson Peter might still be attending his college graduation in a few weeks if only he'd felt safe enough to cry though his own pain, to communicate what was suffering through, and still be respected and admired as a man.
Frederick "Fritz" Engstrom, MD, is the Chief Medical Officer at the Brattleboro Retreat. He has worked as a psychiatrist for more than 35 years. Article was published in the Brattleboro Reformer on May 11, 2015.