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The Civilist: Five Ways To Talk With Anyone About Depression

Andrew Solomon
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Psychologist Andrew Solomon shares his advice about how to come out about depression.

Earlier this week, #mentalhealthday was a trending topic on Twitter. To end the stigma and breach the loneliness, I hope our attention goes beyond this — very successful — one-day event.

To do just that,  I sat down to talk with the remarkable Andrew Solomon for the latest episode of The Civilist podcast. Solomon, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia and the author of "Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression," recommends that people come out about their depression, when they can and when it’s safe.

In that vein, I’m raising my hand to say I suffer from depression. Will you join me?

Here are some of Andrew Solomon’s top tips in talking more openly about this so-called demon.

1. Don’t come out when you're at your lowest: It’s relatively manageable to come out when you’re feeling better and very hard to do so when you’re depressed, says Solomon. Timing is important.

2. Make it easier for others: In telling friends or family members, try to discuss it in the past tense, even if you discuss it with a potential future tense. In other words, Solomon tells us it’s preferable to say something like: “You know, I went through a really bad thing for a while, and I suffered from terrible depression. I’m OK now. I know it might occur again, but I’m sort of holding on for the time being.”

But, he cautions it’s not too helpful to say: “Hi, it’s Andrew and I’m just calling to tell you that I want to kill myself and my life has no value and no meaning.” That makes people pretty uncomfortable.

3. Test the waters gradually: You don’t have to announce it online to the entire world all at the same time. And you can often talk to people about other people to get a sense of their attitude about depression — but don’t disclose anyone else’s condition without their permission.

You can say, “A friend of mine has been having a rough time with depression recently...” suggests Solomon. “Ninety-five percent of people will respond to that by saying depression is so awful, is he getting the right treatment? And five percent will possibly say something mean and disparaging. If you can figure it out ahead of time, then you can tell which of the people to tell and when to tell them.”

4. Avoid keeping it a secret: There are a number of reason to come out about depression, Solomon points out, if only because maintaining a secret uses up an enormous amount of energy. That’s energy that could be better expended on getting better. “People get so obsessed with the cover up process that it zaps them entirely,” he says.

5. Come out: Even though it can be traumatic to disclose this condition, Solomon, who has been public about his condition for two decades, notes “it’s actually very relaxing to have come out.” Past tense. Not to mention the more people who come out, the more common it will seem. “Go out and tell someone,” he said, quoting the late LGBT civil right leader Harvey Milk.

And how about if someone discloses to you that they’re suffering from depression? Says Solomon: “Depression is a disease of loneliness. It’s often instigated by loneliness. It often causes people to be lonely by cutting them off from the other people they know.

If someone comes to you and says, "I have depression," the suitable response is always, "You are not alone and I will be there for you, and I will never love you or care about you less because of it."

"Sometimes you can express that with a great big hug, and sometimes you have to write an email, or sometimes you have to keep calling call three times a day over a period of a year and a half," Solomon says. "There are a million different way to accomplish it. The objective should always be to mitigate someone’s aloneness and acknowledge the seriousness of what they feel.”

Steven Petrow is a respected journalist and the go-to source for modern manners, as cited by The New York Times, People, Time,and NPR. Known as "Mr. Manners” until Miss Manners threatened to sue him for trademark infringement, Steven’s often humorous, but always insightful advice has made him a nationally recognized expert. In addition to his five etiquette books, Petrow writes the "Civilities" column for the Washington Post as well as "Digital Ethics" for USA Today. Previously, he penned The New York Times's "Civil Behavior" column, "Digital Dilemmas" for Parade magazine, and "Medical Manners" for Everyday Health.
Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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