What You Need To Know:

In the second episode of her recently debuted podcast, Michelle Obama has expressed what many of us are feeling.

Sharing with her Michelle Obama Podcast audience, the former First Lady said she is suffering from “low-grade depression” due to concerns and worry about coronavirus, racial injustice and the Trump administration. The interruption of sleep and exercise routines, she said is the result of worries, “I’m waking up in the middle of the night because I’m worrying about something or there’s a heaviness.” The upset of routine, and the heaviness has resulted in what Mrs. Obama’s revelation, “I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression. Not just because of the quarantine, but because of the racial strife, and just seeing this administration, watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting.”

Here are  the questions asked and the responses from leading Psychiatrist Dr. Altha Stewart. Altha J. Stewart, M.D. is Senior Associate Dean for Community Health Engagement at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center-Memphis. In 2018 she was elected President of the American Psychiatric Association, the first African American elected in the 175-year history of the organization:


1-Former First Lady has revealed she is suffering from low-grade depression. What does that mean? How many grades of depression are there?

First, thanks to the First Lady for acknowledging publicly these feelings and recognizing that it’s “ok to say” when you feel this way.  In general depressions are “graded” in the way people may think but they do present in varying levels of intensity of symptoms and severity of impact on functioning.  What she described is what we in the mental health field would call “situational” depression. That’s different from the clinical depression that most people probably think about when they hear the word depression.  Unlike clinical depression, which may require longer term treatment (therapy or medication), in situational depression the individual is generally responding to a “situation”- something that is going on in their life right now – relationship, home, work, etc. and right now for many people the COVID-19 pandemic and all that it has brought with it.  Generally these are not long term events but COVID-19 has given a new definition for “situational”.   Every aspect of our lives has been disrupted – home, school, work, community and social interactions, and we have been forced into an isolation “for our own good” that is on so many levels just unnatural.  And for Blacks it goes against the nature of our culture as a communal people, for  whom ritual gatherings are part of our daily existence.  And depending on your age group, while digital is available many of us still enjoy and need that physical experience with each other. So generally when the ‘situation’ resolves the symptoms likely disappear. The problem that COVID-19 presents is that there seems to be no end in sight and the confusion and conflicting information, some of which we can’t trust seems almost too much to bear as we experience daily assaults.

The individual response to this situation should include:

  • Reduction in exposure to the continuing trauma – no more 24 hr news cycle
  • Intentional self-care activity
  • Make socialization (physical or digital) as much a priority as our work and caring for others is
  • Talk about it with those you trust and if you don’t have anyone in your life to do that with, find a counselor
  • Recognize that we are all experiencing some level of depression regarding the situation and know that we are generally a resilient people, that this will end and we will make it to the other side
  • If it seems to be too much ask for help – it’s ok to say I’m not ok!

Churches, health care clinics, primary care doctors are all aware of this need and have programs to support and counsel during these times.  People like Taraji P. Henson, Charlemayne tha God, Meta World Peace, Brandon Marshall are all working to erase the stigma of mental illness in the Black community but more still needs to be done to make it ok to ask for help.



National Alliance on Mental Illness hotline  – Call – 800-950-6264

Text “NAMI” to 741741 and someone is there to speak with you directly

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotlines –

Suicide prevention help line – 800-273-TALK (8255)

National helpline – 800-622-HELP (4357)


2-Are there common signs of depression?

Or are we all different?

People may show signs of depression differently, again depending on the severity of the illness or their situation.  For example, some studies have shown that although we tend to think of people with depression as having no energy, not wanting to be around others, showing changes in eating or sleeping habits ( too much or not much at all), change in functioning (school, work, etc.), lack of interest in social activity that used to be enjoyable and interesting, in Black women the major symptom is sometimes anger, aggression, not wanting to be around others. Think about how the angry Black woman stereotype in some may be more about depression at what’s going on in their lives that is overwhelming them! Black men have trouble asking for help because it’s not considered ‘manly’ to acknowledge these feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that are part of the depression symptom spectrum.  And in general Black people often see it as “the white man’s disease, we ain’t got time to be depressed” or “we made it through slavery so we can’t be depressed” or if you’re depressed it means “you’re not right with God”, not praying enough.  None of this is true, depression is a real disease like heart and kidney and lung problems, except the affected organ is the brain. And just like we get treatment for heart disease, we should get treatment for our brain (mental) disorder.


3-What are recommendations or suggestions for dealing with low grade depression? – see suggestions in #1

Is therapy the first answer? Not everyone needs therapy to get through a situational depression. Sometimes it resolves when the situation does, but if not don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help.

Can a glass of wine do the job?  A glass of wine (unless contraindicated for other health reasons) is one way to relax and destress. If it gets to become more necessary to make it through the difficulty, it could be a problem and again it’s ok to seek help.


4-For those of us out of work, or on a limited income, are there recommended organizations or websites that offer treatment on a sliding scale?

Many churches and public clinics now offer free counseling.  Most mental health centers that are publicly funded offer free or sliding scale.  Many unemployed folks will qualify for Medicaid in their state.  And groups like NAMI (www.nami.org ) or Mental health America (www.mhanational.org) are excellent resources to find counseling in your local area.

You can also check with groups like the Black Psychiatrists of America, Association of Black Psychologists, National Association of Black Social Workers, and the National Medical Association to find therapists and counselors in your local area.

Why We Need To Know:

Call me a rose-colored glass wearing political optimist, but I think the timing of Mrs. Obama’s podcast is interesting. These are the last few days before Joe Biden is expected to announce his choice for a running mate. Although she has made it clear that she doesn’t want the VP job, maybe there’s a change.

Michelle Obama reveals she is going through the same trauma as many of us are, what better opportunity for the Democratic presidential nominee than now to announce not only does he understand what has to be done, but by his side is a running mate, a woman whom we not only love and respect, but one who walks in our shoes night after sleepless night? She feels our pain and will work with President Joe Biden to bring us out of this (inter)national nightmare. 


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