11/02/2011 08:34 am ET Updated Jan 02, 2012

My Story: Why I'm Helping People Pull Through the Recession

Some come in, wearing well-pressed jackets and ties, looking like they don't have a worry in the world. They shake my hand and smile.

Then they tell their story, their stories of broken families and lost jobs, and frown. Along the way, they may try to force a smile out, and clench their teeth. But they can only fake it for so long.

Others wear flannel shirts hanging out of their pants, with deep lines in their faces, showing the wear and tear of their lives. They force a smile, too, but the storyline is the same: failed relationships, layoffs and loss.

Everywhere I've talked about my book, "A Legacy of Madness: Recovering My Family From Generations of Mental Illness," there's always a person who comes not necessarily to buy. They've come to talk.

They say they're depressed, then they blame the economy. They say they drink and drug, but it only started after they lost their job.

They've thought of suicide. Then, to me, they worry: Will I ever think of it again?

As I note in my book, and to paraphrase the words of Bruce Springsteen, there's something "more than this," more than the obvious that's keeping people down. People are seeing it, in others and in themselves.

Those I run into are mostly from the Jersey Shore, the place known for the reality TV show that, to many, is unreal. In reality, the shore is known for its mixture of million-dollar homes and blue-collar sensibilities. It's a place that rarely shows its vulnerable side, the side of struggle and heartache.

Like so many others, they're searching for some safety net, even if it comes from a guy who wrote a book. They're looking for a person to talk to, even if he's a guy at a bookstore in Madison, Manasquan or Point Pleasant Borough, N.J.

They hear me talk about the subject of the book and my family, and how we dealt with generations of mental illness that led to self-destruction and suicide.

They rejoice at my attempt to tell a story of hope. Then they descend into a tale of sorrow. "I've been through everything you've been through." "My mother is having the same problems." "Once the economy got bad, everything went downhill."

In 2008, Americans spent $11 billion on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching and stress-management programs, a 13.6 jump over 2005, according to The prediction was that the industry would have 6.2 percent annual growth through 2012.

My publisher is Hazelden, one of the leading providers of self-help books that's veered into memoirs. In the book, I even note the phenomenon of economic downturns, and how so many people turn to schools, doctors and even books for help.

But so many others turn to the worst. During the Great Depression, with nearly one-third of the country out of work, suicides jumped from 14 per 100,000 in 1929 to 17 per 100,000 in 1933.

My great-grandfather, Edward Winans, was one of those. He was a guy who lived beyond his means, who traveled the state, looking for the right home for his family. He had a summer rental in Bay Head even as he struggled to gain a footing in the insurance business.

One day, in 1933, he moved a chair up to a stove at his Hightstown home, turned on the gas jets and breathed in. My grandfather found him later, still sitting there, dead. His glasses were hanging half-off.

But as I visit bookstores, hearing others tell their stories, over and over, I feel like I'm being outdone.

Everywhere I go -- whether it's to sell a book, or to perform responsibilities as regional editor of the Patch's Jersey Shore region -- I'm having my life story retold, and even rewritten for me. Or they're writing it to me in emails or Facebook posts.

One man grew so dependent on heroin that he helped robbed a person here, and a person there. He's been in and out of prison.

"I have been busy working on myself, something I needed to do a long time ago," he told me.

I see people who haven't gone to such extremes, but feel as though they're on the verge. They've graduated from Monmouth University and Rutgers, with journalism degrees. Some graduated as long ago as 2008. They're still working as hostesses at Bennihana or some other theme restaurant.

All of them ask the same thing: "How did you get out of it?"

The answers usually come easily. I've said them over and over. But the solutions come harder, just because there really aren't any.

I tell them to look for sources of inspiration. I remind them that there are no real cures. But there are coping strategies for managing, even as everything becomes even more hopeless.

I tell them about Pat McIver, my former Point Pleasant Boro High School journalism teacher, who is hobbled and leaning on a cane, smiling at me as she walked through the Booktowne door in Manasquan, N.J.

"So nice to see you," she said, kissing me on the cheek.

Pat was my first journalism teacher, the one who got me going on this journalism thing, back in 1985. She put me and my good friend, Bill Borden, in charge of Point Pleasant Boro High School's newspaper, The Panther Print.

At the event, she said little, until the very end, holding my hand for much of the time as I talked about my book, and why I was there. But I couldn't help but appreciate her, and the fact that she made it through, even as she struggled to get around.

Pat hit it on the nose, when asked about myself and my friend, Bill, and what she thought of us when we were in high school, ready to embark on a journlism career.

"I always knew there was something about the two of them that was different," she said.

I often wondered if this book thing was worth it. But when I see someone like her, pulling through, the answer is obvious. Perhaps we are here to make a difference.

Perhaps we're here to help pull people through.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

This story was first published in Patch.