By Daniel J. Vance


  This year 20 million American adults will suffer from a category of disability that doctors call "depressive illness." It's a group of "hidden" disabilities, meaning they are of and in the brain and not seen. And they can strike even the most talented, attractive and intellectual of persons. On any given day they affect more than five percent of women and two percent of men.

  There is good news: medication and counseling helps most sufferers.

  One type of depressive illness is called "major depressive disorder." The National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD) claims the disorder often is diagnosed in people showing some of the following symptoms over at least a two-week period: persistent depressed moods, loss of interest in activities, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, insomnia or oversleeping, thoughts of suicide, and loss of appetite.

  To learn more I spoke with Laura Lawless, a Miss America pageant semifinalist, Miss Arizona 2002, and Harvard graduate.

  She said, "My struggle with [major depressive disorder] began during adolescence. I first noticed changes in my sleeping, eating and moods. Gradually the fleeting moments of sadness stretched into weeks. It became nearly impossible to get out of bed, and it felt as if I were dragging 100-pound weights on each foot.

  "No area of my life was untouched by my illness. Schoolwork suffered, my social life became nonexistent, and any tattered shreds of self-esteem I had fell to the wayside. Even as I went through my routine as an Ivy League coed, life seemed meaningless. It wasn't long before I contemplated ending it all."

  Although at times still struggling, Lawless today manages her disorder well. Now her chief struggle seems to be in internally processing the unkind comments of people who have called her "weak," "spoiled," or "attention hungry."

  "Certainly there were people who doubted my sincerity when I reported symptoms," she said.

  The public appears split: many view her as a strong and optimistic survivor, while others see in her a woman "milking" a disability for perks and attention. "The condition has polarized my world, but also enabled me to choose peers and companions more carefully," she said. "I would not trade the insight learned with this disorder for anything."

  Eighty percent of persons with a depressive illness improve after medication. Other depressive illnesses are bipolar disorder and dysthymia. To learn more, visit www.narsad.org or www.miss-arizona.org.

  [Contact Mr. Vance through www.danieljvance.com]