Douglas Duncan’s office at the University of Maryland is decorated with mementos of his past. There’s a photo of the AFI Silver Theatre, a cornerstone of the Silver Spring revitalization he shepherded as Montgomery County executive. There’s a shot of the 2002 press conference where Duncan and Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose announced that the snipers who had been terrorizing the region had been caught.
“And up there,” Duncan says, pointing to a shelf, “are all my crazy-person-of-the-year awards.”
He’s referring to plaques he received from mental-health groups after he announced he was suffering from depression. “Actually,” he says, adopting a more serious tone, “it’s amazing how many lives you can touch by just standing up and saying, ‘I’m going to get help.’ ”
Duncan stunned even his inner circle in June 2006 when—amid a tough primary battle with Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley for the Maryland governor’s seat—he withdrew from the race because of depression.
“I’d known for some time I wasn’t well,” Duncan says. “I kept telling people in the campaign, ‘I don’t feel right. I have this pit in my stomach that won’t go away.’ People said, ‘Oh, it’s just the stress of the campaign.’ ”
But the feeling got worse until it dawned on him one Saturday, sitting in church, that he’d better get help. He went to see a psychiatrist that Monday and three days later bowed out of the race.
As he finished his term, the three-time county executive and former Rockville mayor worked on treating his depression, had hip-replacement surgery, and kept a low profile. In April 2007 he was hired at the University of Maryland as chief finance and administrative officer of the College Park campus.
“I always saw myself as a community builder,” he says, “somebody who makes people proud of where they live and work. I’m doing the same thing at the University of Maryland that I did in Rockville and in Montgomery County—trying to make this a better place so people will want to come here.”
On his plate are plans for transforming the East Campus, on the eastern side of Route 1, into a town center, and issues surrounding construction of a Purple Line—either light rail or bus rapid transit—that would run through the campus.
In his office, the bearish Duncan—perhaps a bit more bearish than before—talked about his depression and his life as a private citizen. At 52, the father of five—one a Marine who just left for his second tour in Iraq—recently bought his first lawn mower. He says he now has weekends free to do yard work at his Rockville home, take walks with his wife, Barbara, and just “do what normal people do.”
Did it take you a while to stop thinking of yourself as an elected official?
No. I left in December of ’06, and I remember thinking that winter I was glad they had somebody else to call to remove their snow—though now I’m responsible for snow removal at the campus and am dealing with the Purple Line. Some issues never leave me.
Part of it was I wasn’t well. I needed to get healthy, so I just focused on that for a while. The transition was a little different than I think most elected officials have.
How long did it take to get a handle on the depression?
It took me a while to get where I felt truly better. I was still doing things, but it was a struggle. The hip surgery gave me another reason to keep out of the public eye and just recover. It was about six to eight months before I thought the depression was totally gone.
What was the most effective treatment for you?
The medication was a huge help. The first one they gave me, Lexapro, worked; I could notice improvement over time, but I wasn’t happy with the side effects. Then we tried Wellbutrin, which didn’t work at all. And now Prozac is working really well.
I don’t have nearly the lows I had before. I feel better than I have in years. It’s nice to be able to smile again, see joy in little things.
Any regrets about dropping out?
None at all. That I’m alive to talk about it is the most important thing.
Did the stress of the gubernatorial campaign contribute to your depression?
I think I had been in a chronic depression for some time, and the campaign brought it to the forefront. I would still be chronically depressed and able to do my job well, but not happy. Having it elevated caused me to understand what was going on and get treatment.
It must have been hard to give speeches, talk to people, go to events, ask for money.
Yeah, because you just think of what a failure you are, how worthless you are, and yet you’re asking people to support you. When people come up to me, people who are struggling with it or whose family members are, I feel so bad for them. It is the worst thing I’ve gone through. The hip replacement was a walk in the park compared to the depression. I describe it as moving to hell for a couple of years.
The weird thing is it was very painful to drink anything cold. So I’d have to drink water and sodas at room temperature. I have no idea what that was all about. If I drank something cold, it just hurt.
And now you can?
Oh, yeah, the colder the better. I mean, it’s these little, weird things. I couldn’t remember names at all—which, when you’re a politician, is not a good thing. Faces were fine, but names—as the depression got worse, I just couldn’t make a connection. It was like I was in a daze.
Have you continued with therapy?
No; I did that for a while, and my therapist basically said, “You don’t need me anymore. You’re fine.” So I see a psychiatrist about every three months for a medicine check.
Have you found that depression isn’t understood by people?
The one thing that surprised me was how many people suffer from it in silence. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said they’ve suffered from it—politicians, journalists, people you would never expect. And a lot of them have talked about their family members. You hear a lot of it from women, but for men to stand up and say that, I think it’s kind of unusual.
One of the nicest things was that within two days after I announced how depressed I was, the Mental Health Association of Montgomery County got more than a thousand calls from people looking for help.
Were there people who were there for you and people who weren’t?
People who knew me—my circle of friends and advisers—were very supportive. There was some discussion about trying to hang in there and “take your medicine for a couple weeks and you’ll be fine.” But you never know if it takes two days, two weeks, two years. I was convinced I was going to be the next governor if I was healthy, but I couldn’t run the campaign I needed to run because I was not healthy.We had people saying, “Do we need to say you’re depressed?” I’m like, “Just tell the truth.”