Retired firefighter shares his story of life with depression

Published on May 6, 2014
Retired firefighter Wally Hartson was the guest speaker at the Community Mental Health Initiative’s luncheon at the Greenwood Inn and Suites Tuesday. The lunch was part of Mental Health Week (May 6-12). On Friday, there will be a free community barbecue from 12 - 2 p.m. at Summit Place on Premier Drive in Corner Brook.
— Photo by Geraldine Brophy/The Western Star

For years Wally Hartson tried to keep his battles with depression a secret

He didn’t want anyone to know what was happening to him for fear of the stigma associated with having a mental illness.

It’s that stigma that the retired Corner Brook firefighter hopes one day will be gone.

“Stigma holds you back,” Hartson told about 60 people gathered to hear his story at a Mental Health Week luncheon sponsored by the Community Mental Health Initiative at the Greenwood Inn and Suites on Tuesday.

“Don’t be afraid to speak up.”

Hartson almost didn’t take his own advice when asked to speak at the event. At first he said no, but after thinking it through he changed his mind in hope of breaking the stigma and helping someone else.

At times he struggled to tell his story. It included four failed relationships, and how each was a trigger for his depression, an attempt to commit suicide. He described how his depression affected his job.

Hartson talked of the “dark box” he would create for himself when depression struck. He spoke of stays on the fourth floor at Western Memorial Regional Hospital, being released when he was healthy enough, having to be reintroduced to the world and the coping skills he’s learned to stay healthy.

He paused often to take a breath and wipe his hand across the podium before continuing.

After his speech, Hartson said speaking about his illnesss was a new experience for him.

“I just thought it would be a good way to give back,” he, adding, “It was really hard.

“It’s different getting up and talking about something than getting up and talking about your life. Because when that happens it’s like your life is out there. You don’t want anybody to know you’re suffering, especially with a mental illness.”

Hartson said the type of depression he has is hereditary and he knew as a child that something was wrong. But then people didn’t talk about it he never let anyone know as he got older. Hiding it became the way to try to cope.

 “You hide yourself. My home or my apartment was my dark box.”

Curtains and doors were closed. Phones were left off the hook.

“That’s how you live. You think it’s the best, but it’s just the opposite. It’s the worst. Seeking help is what you should do.”

Hartson relaxed as he talked and he was smiling when he started to talk of recovery.

“I’m doing fine, I really am,” he said.

But he said he knows the illness is something he’ll carry with him for life. “You always have depression.”

 Among those who listened was a table full of members of the Corner Brook Fire Department, some who know what he’s gone through and some who didn’t.

“For anybody that suffers with depression stigma is the worst thing that’s associated with it,” Hartson said. “So for them fellows to understand and realize where I was coming from when I worked with the fire department and understanding how I couldn’t make those decisions and now knowing the reason why I left, it will make a difference.”

And he hopes it will also make a difference to others who suffer in silence and those around them.