The couple settled on Casey County, where they found peace for their horses, but Vassallo said he increasingly battled depression.
“When I was an attorney and involved in various political campaigns and other activities over so many years I was so mentally active I didn't have time to notice or realize [the depression],” Vassallo said. “When I stopped using my mind the same way, it became self-distractive. I began to find a way out of depression, but it is an everyday battle.”
One of the pursuits that proved therapeutic for Vassallo ultimately became inspiration for his writing and a way to help others. He began to save animals which had been abandoned and abused.
It was during his bout with colon cancer in 1997 when Vassallo said he first realized the power his stories had to help others. Although he said his depression had gotten to the point where he was almost resigned to his own death before he was even diagnosed, he began to talk to others undergoing chemotherapy about the creatures who would become the subjects of his first book of stories, “Tears and Tales.”
“I realized that so many other chemo patients were completely emotionally frozen,” Vassallo said. “They couldn’t accept their illness and they thought they were going to die. The stories about the animals provoked emotions by making people feel for the animals first. They took the focus off of themselves, but eventually they were able to talk to me and each other about their own fears.”
David Walden, a funeral director with Preston-Pruitt Funeral Home in Danville and NAMI board member, believes Vassallo and his books can help many others with depression and other mental illnesses realize they are not alone.
“I’m a big reader and of hundreds of authors I’ve read, Russell has the best ability to draw the reader into his story,” said Walden, who has his own experience with mental illness. “It isn’t necessarily the subject matter, but his storytelling.”
Vassallo’s storytelling first caught Walden’s eye at the Constitution Square Arts Fest several years ago, where Vassallo had set up a booth to sell his books. Walden, a Chicago native who has studied the city’s mob past, was drawn to one Vassallo's book, “Streetwise: Mafia Memoirs,” about his connections to New Jersey organized crime through his grandfather.
Since then the two have become close friends, with Vassallo basing one of his stories, titled “I’m Here,” in the book “Heart of an Animal” on Walden.
Walden has been active with NAMI sense he moved to Danville and volunteers at the mental health unit at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center. He said many people struggling with a mental illness have become resigned to the idea it is a disability that will not allow them to fully participate in society, a scenario he said is not necessary with proper treatment and medication.
Lois Anderson, one of NAMI’s founders and current director, said helping people understand they are not isolated with their condition is one of the major goals for the group and Tuesday’s event. NAMI sponsors a number of educational programs and support groups for those with mental illness and their families, in addition to being advocates for mental health issues from the local courthouse to the halls of congress.
Although a growing number of public figures have acknowledged their own mental illness, Anderson said overcoming the stigma is still difficult for many people. She and Walden both said getting past the unnecessary shame associated with various conditions is crucial.
“We need to irradicate that stigma,” Walden said. “It is still so pervasive and it keeps people from seeking treatment, from taking classes and seeking out support groups that would help them immensely.”
Walden said about 40 percent of people will struggle with mental illness at some point in their lives, but only about a quarter of those will be diagnosed. For people with mental illness, particularly those who have been made to feel it will limit them, Walden said Vassallo shows it is possible to thrive with his condition.
“I’ve wanted to help people realize there is hope and Russell is an example of that,” Walden said.