Michelle Obama Talks ‘Low-Grade Depression’ During the Pandemic

  • Michelle Obama recently revealed on her podcast that she’s dealing with “low-grade depression.”
  • Experts say her statement is a good thing since it helps dispel the misconceptions and stigma surrounding this condition.
  • Low-grade depression is mild depression that can be treated with talk therapy and sometimes medication.
  • If you’ve been dealing with depression symptoms for a couple of weeks, it may be time to see a healthcare professional for evaluation.
  • Feeling suicidal or experiencing psychosis are reasons to seek urgent medical care.

In the second episode of “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” Michelle Obama revealed that she’s been “dealing with some form of low-grade depression.”

She went on to say that the lockdown, racial strife, and actions of the current administration were all factors in how she was feeling.

“So I have had to kind of give myself that, those days, those moments,” she said, “but for the most part, staying in a routine, getting a workout in, trying to get outside.”

Later, she posted to her Instagram account to further clarify her comments, saying that she’s “doing just fine” and there’s “no reason to worry.”

She further encouraged her followers to “feel whatever you are feeling” as well as to reach out to others.

“Don’t be afraid to offer them a shoulder to lean on, or to ask for one yourself,” she advised.

Why statements like Michelle Obama’s are important

Dr. John Zajecka, professor of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, says he feels it’s a “good thing” when celebrities like Michelle Obama speak out about depression.

There are still misconceptions about it, he explains. People believe that depression is a sign of weakness or that they “need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

He says only around two-thirds of people seek treatment, despite the fact that it’s a treatable condition that can potentially be fatal.

He says that when people like Michelle Obama, who are seen by the public as role models, speak about their own experiences, it can have “tremendous impact” in educating the public and reducing the stigma surrounding mental health conditions.

What is low-grade depression?

Dr. Ramon Solhkhah, chair of the department of psychiatry and director of behavioral health at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, says that although he doesn’t have any details about the former first lady’s particular situation, he could speak about depression in general terms.

He says major depressive disorder, sometimes referred to as “clinical depression,” can be divided into three stages of severity: mild, moderate, and severe.

The number of symptoms as well as the intensity of the symptoms would determine how a person’s depression might be classified.

Obama’s admission that she’s been experiencing low-grade depression could mean that she would fall into the mild category, according to Solhkhah.

People with this degree of depression could benefit from talk therapy, he says. Medications might also be an option, but typically this would be reserved for moderate to severe cases.

Zajecka adds that most people who describe their depression as mild have all the symptoms of major depressive disorder — such as depressed mood, low energy, or problems with sleeping — but they’re not severe enough to cause extreme impairment of functioning.

“They are able to push through the day,” he said, “but it requires effort, and they can put themselves ‘on stage’ when they need to, making it less apparent to others, but they collapse at the end of the day.”

What are the symptoms of depression?

Solhkhah says that depression symptoms fall into two categories: neurovegetative (physical) symptoms and mood symptoms.

For a doctor to diagnose depression, he says you’d first need to have mood symptoms, which would include depressed mood or feeling irritable.

You’d also need to have four to five of the physical symptoms of depression.

Physical symptoms include problems with sleep and concentration, changes in appetite (either very low or high), suicidal thinking, feelings of guilt, and loss of pleasure in things you usually enjoy.

If you’ve had some combination of these symptoms for at least 2 weeks on most days for most of the day, you would meet the criteria for a diagnosis of depression, Solhkhah says.

What you should do if you are feeling depressed

Your first steps, according to Solhkhah, would be to see whether you can identify something in your situation that’s contributing to your depression, and then change that if you can.

Spending time with friends or family, or finding someone you trust who you can talk with, can also help.

Regular sleep and eating are also critical to our well-being, he says. Getting back on a regular schedule can often help bring your body chemistry back into balance.

If these types of self-help measures don’t work, however, you may want to contact a healthcare professional.

Zajecka adds that this professional would optimally be a psychiatrist, but another good option would be to see your primary care physician.

They can assess your symptoms and either make a referral to a mental health professional or begin treatment.

It’s helpful to see a medical doctor, such as your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist, he says, because they can rule out any medical conditions that might have similar symptoms to depression but need very different treatments.

Seeking professional help

Solhkhah says the point when you want to think about seeking help is when your symptoms have lingered for a couple of weeks and are significantly interfering with your life.

If you’re having thoughts about suicide or hurting yourself, it’s urgent that you speak with a professional.

Symptoms of psychosis or paranoia can also occur in some people with depression and would be a sign that immediate medical assistance is needed.

Several effective types of treatments are available for depression, he says.

Talk therapy would be a good option for milder cases of depression.

There are also antidepressant medications available, which he says are “safe and generally well tolerated.”

Finally, there are instances when antipsychotic medications might play a role in the treatment of depression, Solhkhah says.

In low doses, they can be used to “jump-start” the treatment process, providing an antidepressant effect while you wait for the antidepressant to start working.

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text the Crisis Text Line, or check out this list of resources.


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