Sunday, April 13, 2008

The following is a part of a beautifully written article about clinical depression and suicide printed in a Cape Cod newspaper:
Author: Robin Lord can be reached at

Several closest to Potter agreed to talk so people will know that his despondency in the last few months of his life, and the manner of his death, are not his lasting legacy.

And they agreed to comment because they believe there are lessons to be learned about the recognition and treatment of a very difficult illness: clinical depression.

'Nobody knew the depths'

By all accounts, Jan (pronounced "Yan") Potter was extremely strong, artistically and mechanically talented, and unflappable. The houses he built were "pieces of art," his sister said.

Usually private and reserved, he could also be gregarious and blended well with many different kinds of people.

"He was like this post you could hitch your line to at any time," said longtime friend Eric Martinson. "He was one of those people we took for granted and thought was always going to be there."

Generous to a fault, politically opinionated but astonishingly non-judgmental, Potter never seemed to get rattled by anything, Martinson said. "There are people who have known him for 20 or 30 years who said they have never seen him down."

Thoughtful, "but not in a bring your flowers on your birthday" way, he took great joy in finding little gifts for people at the town's swap shop, said his longtime girlfriend, Sarah Galdston.

"I remember he had a T-shirt that said 'memory full,' and he gave it to a bartender who admired it," she said.

Potter's sons meant everything to him, and "it was very important to him that they knew he trusted they would do the right thing," she said.

Sadness had dogged Potter in the past year, Galdston said.

A severe bout with the flu earlier this year left him weak and depressed, and several issues he had been dealing with over the past year — his father's death last April, Caleb's injury, and changes to the state building code in January that he believed could force him out of business — caught up to him, she said.

"He was always very proud of his ability to handle things, and it pained him enormously when he couldn't," Galdston said.

Those who knew him well were concerned in recent weeks, according to Martinson and another of Potter's friends and co-workers, Dick Morrill.

"He would get depressed about things like the building codes and the bureaucracy and how the town was changing," Morrill said. "But nobody knew the depths. Nobody imagined it would go that far."

All of Caleb's family members and friends had been on a roller coaster of emotions since the skateboarding accident, Carol Lindsay said. "I thought it was just Jan's time to be down," she said.

'All I see is doom and gloom'

Sitting in her Wellfleet home this week at a sturdy pine trestle table built by Potter, Galdston said Potter had lost interest in activities that usually brought great joy, such as dinner parties and being on the water.

When he got sick, it shattered his sense of invulnerability, and he began to truly mourn the loss of his father, George, his sister said.

The two had a complex relationship, she said.

"Jan never got his father's blessing and I know he was yearning for it all his life."

Going to a doctor was anathema to Potter, and seeking mental health counseling was out of the picture, according to those closest to him.

One of Potter's strongest traits was his willingness to help others, but, he had a much harder time accepting help himself, Martinson said.

"All I see is doom and gloom," Potter wrote in a note he left for his sister.

The family had gathered just two days before for his mother, Wiltrud "Vivi" Potter's, 90th birthday party. Jan seemed to have enjoyed himself, his sister said.

At a one-on-one dinner a couple weeks before, she shared with him observations about the oppressive nature of depression.

"He agreed, but said it was so good to have a very good family and very good friends, and so I figured he was safe," she said.

Recognizing the symptoms

Family members and people close to a depressed person cannot be expected to act like trained observers, said Dr. Shannon Scarry, a psychiatrist at the behavioral health department at Cape Cod Hospital.

Knowing when someone needs intervention and predicting who will commit suicide is difficult even for mental health professionals, Scarry said.

Recognizing depression as an illness is also hard for many people because there is still an unfounded expectation that someone suffering with depression can simply snap out of it, she said. "If someone's (clinically) depressed, they have an illness, and it's a very serious illness," said Scarry, who added depression can be treated effectively with medication and therapy.

Clinical depression has definite symptoms and is different from short-term situational depression, Scarry said. Symptoms include sleeping disorders, lethargy and inappropriate fits of guilt, she said.

People who are suffering from clinical depression experience low self-esteem and despair that appears to have no end, Scarry said.

"It's sort of built in to depression that they don't feel help will be helpful," she said.

Women are more likely to get depressed when they are younger and men are more prone to the illness as they age, according to Scarry.

"Culturally, it's a far more difficult thing for a male to say, 'I hurt, I need help,'" Scarry said.

Jan Potter was in the grip of depression and couldn't break free, family members and friends said.

"He needed to be independent at all times," his sister said. "(He believed) if you're a real man you do everything by yourself."

Clinging to self-sufficiency may have been his undoing, Martinson said. "Maybe he was not able to say to everybody, 'Please drop everything, it's time to hold me up now.'"

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