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Michelle Obama Opens Up About “Low-Grade Depression”

“The idea that what this country is going through shouldn’t have any effect on us—that we should all just feel OK all the time—that just doesn’t feel real to me,” the former First Lady said.

On a recent episode of her new podcast, former First Lady Michelle Obama said she’s been experiencing “low-grade depression,” acknowledging a reality many Americans are dealing with given the relentless, mentally draining events of 2020.

"These are not — they are not fulfilling times, spiritually. I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression,” Obama said in a conversation with journalist and friend Michele Norris. “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.”

Obama said it’s “exhausting ... waking up to yet another story of a Black man or a Black person somehow being dehumanized, or hurt, or killed, or falsely accused of something … and it has led to a weight that I haven’t felt in my life, in a while.”

According to recent surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, some 40 percent of Americans reported feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression. During the same time period last year, that number was only 11 percent.

One of the symptoms many people are experiencing during the pandemic is insomnia—and the former First Lady is among that group.

“I’m waking up in the middle of the night, ‘cause I’m worrying about something, or there’s a heaviness,” Obama said on the podcast. She observed that not moving around as much during the day means she’s not as tired at the end of it, also leading to a later bedtime.

“I’m waking up in the middle of the night, ‘cause I’m worrying about something, or there’s a heaviness,” Obama said on the podcast. She observed that not moving around as much during the day means she’s not as tired at the end of it, also leading to a later bedtime.

While she acknowledged getting outside (safely) and working out helps, Obama also admitted the motivation to do so isn’t always there. “I’ve gone through those emotional highs and lows that I think everybody feels, where you just don’t feel yourself. And sometimes … there [has] been a week or so where I had to surrender to that, and not be so hard on myself. And say, you know what, you’re just not feeling that treadmill right now.”

On social media, people shared just how much they relate:

Author and political analyst Zerlina Maxwell discussed Obama’s comments on MSNBC, saying “we’re experiencing collectively as a nation an exorbitant amount of mass loss and grief and trauma.”

So how is Obama getting through it?

She said managing “emotional highs and lows” requires “knowing yourself … [and] the things that do bring you joy.” She also said routine and “schedule is key.”

NPR reported the Obamas’ routine includes “dinner together, thousand-piece puzzles and endless games of cards.”

Obama said of quarantine life that “Barack has taught the girls Spades, and now there’s this vicious competition. They wouldn’t have sat down, but for this quarantine, to learn how to play a card game with their dad.”

On Thursday, a day after the podcast came out, Obama posted a follow-up on Instagram.

“I just wanted to check in with you all because a lot of you have been checking in on me after hearing this week’s podcast,” she wrote. “First things first—I’m doing just fine. There’s no reason to worry about me … I’m thinking about the folks out there risking themselves for the rest of us—the doctors and nurses and essential workers of all kinds.”

She continued: “The idea that what this country is going through shouldn’t have any effect on us—that we should all just feel OK all the time—that just doesn’t feel real to me. So I hope you all are allowing yourselves to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.”

Commenters agreed. “A little depression these days means you are an empathetic human,” one person wrote under her Instagram post.

Obama recommended people reach out to friends and family, “not just with a text, but maybe with a call or a videochat.”

“Don’t be afraid to offer them a shoulder to lean on, or to ask for one yourself.”
 
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued recommendations for people to manage stress, including taking a break from the news, exercising, making time for activities you enjoy, and looking into telehealth treatment or counseling.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here are national 24/7 hotlines for several different kinds of help and resources, including mental health, domestic violence, and more. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255).