The crying game

While I lay on a gurney in the emergency room of a Phoenix hospital 12 years ago, broken and practically catatonic from depression, the first voice that penetrated my fog was that of a calm and confident doctor, saying, "Hello. We're here to help you. You will be OK." Jason Kornrich, a young psychologist at Nassau County Medical Center, seems to be that kind of doctor, too.

Whether the hospital's annual National Depression Screening Day, held Oct. 7, is as valuable as a caring doctor is another question.

Posing as a human being, instead of as a reporter, I'm led through an empty foyer into an empty auditorium. Sixty blue chairs are set up in front of an empty stage and a vacant podium. On the podium is the hospital's new name, the Nassau Health Care Corporation, which is good enough reason to be depressed. This "public benefit corporation" that took over the hospital is led by lawyer Eric Rosenblum, whose only qualification for the task is that he's an executive leader of the Nassau GOP machine. One of the machine's pals, Jerald Newman, is the hospital chief. He's an ex-banker and party contributor who is paid nearly $200,000 a year to run the hospital. The machine has refused pleas by health-care advocates to appoint an advisory board, which bodes ill for the hundreds of thousands of people who need a vibrant and all-embracing county hospital.

The huge industry that has arisen around depression and its treatment is devoted as much to public relations as to health care. Told to watch a 20-minute video on the topic of depression, I sit alone—hardly a cure for the alienation that often accompanies depression—and see a parade of faces flicker across a TV screen. They talk about how depressed they were and how drugs and therapy helped them. And some of them tout the benefits of the National Depression Screening Day, which is a project of the pharmaceutical and health-care corporations that make billions of dollars from depressed people, their insurance companies and the government. The video's sponsors include the drug manufacturers Abbott, Eli Lilly, Parke-Davis and Pfizer.

After the video, I'm ushered into the foyer for a screening of a different sort: Kornrich and two psychology graduate students fill out a questionnaire on me to help evaluate whether someone is depressed.

After identifying myself as a reporter, I learn from Kornrich that, aside from its steady business of seeing depressed and freaked-out people, about 50 others come to the hospital's annual screening day. Some are referred for treatment. Just the act of going through screening can help a depressed person—it's a positive first step. But think of all the untreated people walking around. Most just hide their misery. Some of them run political power trips on us. Others wind up shoving people off subway platforms or taunting police into killing them. A lot of them beat their wives and kids.

The federal government estimates that 17 million Americans suffer from depression in any given year. Speaking about general health care, Kornrich worries about the one million people he says are working part-time in Nassau, people without solid health insurance.

"There are that many people who need us—and more," he says.

 
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