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Wednesday, October 22, 2003  

Health watch: Two tales of depression

A pair of current news stories highlight the seriousness of longterm clinical depression. Kirk Jones survived a jump into Niagara Falls last week. He says he had reached a point in his life when he did not care whether he lived or died. That led him to play a form of Russian roulette. Singer Elliott Smith has been reported dead from apparently self-inflicted knife wounds.

Jones was first described as a daredevil in news stories. However, he says the thrill was not his motivation for risking his life in a feat he is the only person to have lived through.

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario (AP) -- A man who went over Niagara Falls head first said Wednesday that he was driven by depression, not a desire to become a daredevil.

Kirk Jones, 40, of Canton, Mich., is charged with illegally performing a stunt. He is the first person known to have plunged over the falls without safety devices and lived.

In a phone interview with ABC News, Jones said he had been depressed, but surviving the plunge made him want to live again.

"I honestly thought that it wasn't worth going on. But I can tell you now after hitting the falls I feel that life is worth living," he said.

Jones recently lost his job when his parents shut down the family business, which made tools for auto parts manufacturers. His father, Raymond Jones, told The Detroit News he had to lay off his son because of the economy.

Elliott Smith appears not to have ever acknowledged longterm depression, though observers, including fans, suspected it. The circumstances of his death confirm the problem.

He was once dubbed "the unhappiest man in the land." His most renown song was called "Miss Misery." But Elliott Smith sounded disappointed that he was often asked, "Why are you so sad?"

The singer-songwriter, whose fragile, Beatles-tinged melodies elevated to him mythic status on the indie scene and brought him unlikely, Oscar-nominated success , died Tuesday of an apparent suicide at his apartment in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, officials said. He was 34.

. . . Smith's well-being, or lack thereof, was whispered about in recent years on the L.A. music scene. Concerts could be hit and miss. At one Hollywood show in February, Smith commanded the stage for most of the night with just his hushed voice, stool and guitar. But the lyrics came and went. The devoted supplied the missing words, and willed him to the finish.

Smith, who opened up in June to Under the Radar about formerly having been "a really bad alcoholic," rarely spoke of depression, drink or drugs in interviews, just on his records. There, he also spoke of hope and love. Sometimes in the same song.

"It's too bad that people seem to sometimes only notice the dark part of some songs of mine," Smith told Amazon.com in 1998 upon the release of his DreamWorks debut, XO.

Rather, Smith said in a Salon.com Q&A in 2000, he was consistently asked by journalists, "Why are you so sad?"

"Just because people have a range of emotions and thoughts...sometimes they get ecstatically happy about something and at other times ridiculously depressed, doesn't mean that there's something wrong with them," Smith told the Website.

I suspect family and friends often fail to intervene in episodes of clinical depression because situational depression is so common. People have plenty of rational reasons to be sad. However, when depression becomes the norm, dragging on for years, it has moved beyond 'the blues.' At that point, intervention by medical personnel may be necessary to prevent the tragedy of suicide.

Symptoms of Depression

  • Persistent sadness or unhappiness
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Irritability
  • Sudden change in appetite
  • Disruption of normal sleep pattern
  • Physical discomfort
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • Thoughts of suicide or death
  • I believe Kirk Jones did the right thing, despite the possibility of embarassment, in admitting he behaved very rashly because of emotional problems, not machismo. His message, broadcast nationally and internationally, may lead other clinically depressed persons to seek help.

    4:10 PM