Hansen: Matt Duncan suicide puts light on clinical depression
MARC HANSEN • firstname.lastname@example.org • June 30, 2009
Matt Duncan was big, strong, smart, compassionate and clinically depressed.
He was 46 and married without kids when he took his life June 11. It's hard to think of many people who seemed, on the surface, to have more going for him.
After turning 40, he decided he'd train for a Toughman competition. Why not? He had a blue belt in tae kwon do. At 6 feet, 3 inches and 225 pounds, he was in great shape.
But that's clinical depression. It sometimes wears a mask. There's no pool of blood, no broken bones, no scar tissue.
When people asked Duncan how he was doing, he'd say, good, great, couldn't be better, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Matt was Randy Duncan's kid, which has its perks but can't be easy when you play football, too, and people compare you with your dad. Randy Duncan helped Iowa win two Rose Bowls and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Still, Matt followed Randy's lead in so many ways. He was a star football player at Des Moines Roosevelt High School, graduating in the top 3 percent of his class.
Like his father, he was recruited to play football for the Hawkeyes, along with Missouri and Iowa State, and earned a trip to Pasadena, Calif.
But he got hurt and wasn't really big enough to play the line and it didn't work out, which was OK. Matt Duncan had other strengths and attributes.
"He was more of a student than a jock anyway," his father says.
After graduating cum laude, Matt went to law school at Drake University (like his father), became managing editor of the Drake Law Review and began practice in Des Moines.
People of all ages suffer from clinical depression, but Duncan's problems would appear later.
"Growing up, he was a normal, great, happy kid," Randy Duncan says. "There were no signs at all."
But then Matt took a high-pressure job with a big law firm in Washington, D.C. All he did was work. He had no social life.
"It kind of started then," Randy Duncan says. "He became more of a recluse. He wasn't going out with friends or answering phone calls. We got him to a psychiatrist. Doctors made the diagnosis in 1998."
Matt moved home and took a job with his father's firm and tried to stay on top of it.
"He did everything you're supposed to do," his father says. "It was a chemical imbalance."
Matt took antidepressants that increased the level of serotonin in the brain. He received counseling. When the depression hit particularly hard, he checked into the hospital for a few days.
"Matt was a Renaissance man interested in all kinds of intellectual endeavors, but he never looked upon himself as others did," Randy Duncan says.
After the funeral, Randy Duncan was stunned by the response.
"I can't tell you how many people came up to me and said their spouses or sons or daughters have depression. It's one of those things people should be talking about."
Millions of Americans suffer from clinical depression. But how do you know whether you're suffering from a serious condition or just on a temporary downer?
According to guidelines set forth by the American Psychiatric Association, depression is diagnosed when at least five symptoms are present for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks:
Constant sadness, irritability, hopelessness, trouble sleeping, low energy or fatigue, feeling worthless or guilty for no reason, significant weight change, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest in favorite activities.
At least one of the symptoms must be persistent sad or empty feelings or loss of interest in activities.
Raymond Crowe, a University of Iowa psychiatry professor, answers the question at uihealthcare.com.
"I think the difference between just having the blues and depression lies in the symptoms," he says. "If 'the blues' persist for more than a couple of weeks and are accompanied by trouble eating, difficulty sleeping, or suicidal thoughts, you should see someone."
Immediately, if not sooner.