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Advice for Michelle Obama

By August 13, 2020No Comments

Why Are You Experiencing Low Grade Depression?

Michelle Obama has declared publicly that she is experiencing a low-grade depression. Many have been inspired by her willingness to speak so openly about mental health and illness. Others became frightened about her precarious condition: If this icon of optimism and stability is not well, what of us mere mortals?

I understand that one of her goals in this revelation is to try to make psychological problems more acceptable in the eyes of the public. While this very aim is getting closer every day, I want to suggest that it may be the wrong goal. That is, we are probably discussing feelings that need not and should not be viewed as illness or any sort of pathology.

Mainstream psychology in the West still pathologizes human experience. What if we instead viewed psychological states as ordinary signals of well-being in some cases and signals of distress in others? What if we did not consider human skin as only a barrier, but also as a means of complex communication?

What does the skin connect? The biology, chemistry, and physics of the inner and the outer. What if the zones inside and outside the skin are part of a unified system ranging from the micro to the macro, the biological to the psychological. What if we stopped searching for the kernel of truth and instead considered the complex nexus of influences on our human minds/bodies? Where would this contextual epistemology lead us?

For this moment, let’s focus on the depression that Michelle Obama reports that she “has.” What if we name this “depression” what I believe it is: serious grief at real loss. Is there any one of us who is not experiencing loss at this extreme moment in American history?

We find ourselves at a crossroads where the fragility of our own individual lives has collided head-on with the fragility of our entire democratic system of government. What we may have taken for granted has disappeared before our disbelieving eyes.

Many of us are facing an existential loss of the possible and of our illusion of safety, along with a personal and more concrete loss of loved ones as they all too rapidly succumb to the plague, homelessness, or poverty. For Michelle Obama, there is an added possible loss of everything she and her husband worked for during eight years in the White House—a loss of progress and of the American Dream.

Facing these issues without experiencing enormous grief is almost humanly impossible for her and for most of us in similar situations. Doing so is as orderly and natural as can be, and not a disorder or an illness at all. Likewise, with the high level of anxiety being experienced by so many. It would be almost unnatural not to be frightened in such a dangerous and unpredictable time.

What if these feelings are instead signals more like hunger and thirst that we can use as an alert to eat or drink, in the case of depression or anxiety, to notice the sources of our fear or grief and what is instead the real problem? What if self care and self respect could replace our ideas about mental illness?

These are human emotions and experiences, neither illness nor disorder. I suggest instead that they are more analogous to hunger and thirst, which are signals of a corporeal need. What if we focused on acknowledging and nurturing that need? “What do I need?” “Rather than what is wrong with me, what is right with me?”

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.