She opened up about her struggles during the latest episode of her podcast.
Michelle Obama is getting attention after she got incredibly candid about her mental state in the second episode of her podcast, The Michelle Obama Podcast. The former first lady opened up to journalist Michele Norris about struggling with “low-grade depression” during the pandemic and resurgence of the fight for racial justice.
“These are not, they are not fulfilling times, spiritually,” she said. “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.”
“I’m waking up in the middle of the night because I’m worried about something or there’s a heaviness,” she continued. Obama said she tries “to make sure I get a workout in,” but that there have been “periods throughout this quarantine, where I just have felt too low.”
Obama also said that it’s “exhausting” to hear stories about racial injustice in the US, noting that it’s hard to be “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.”
“It has led to a weight that I haven’t felt in my life, in a while,” she said. “We talk about white women clutching their purses at the sight of us, or feeling uncomfortable when we walk in the store, but I wonder, do you know how afraid we are?”
Stepping away from social media and spending time with her family has helped Obama’s mental state, though. “You kinda have to sit in it for a minute, to know, ‘Oh oh, I’m feeling off,'” she said. “I gotta feed myself with something better. And sometimes for me, that means turning it off. It means turning off the phone, not taking in the news, because it is negative energy. I learned that in the days of the White House.”
What does it mean to have low-grade depression?
Low-grade depression isn’t exactly a medical diagnosis—but that doesn’t mean it’s not a real thing. “People describe their health symptoms using language that resonates with them and their experiences,” Monifa Seawell, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in Atlanta, Georgia, tells Health. In the case of someone saying they have “low-grade depression,” like Obama (and which Dr. Seawell says she’s heard several times in her practice), a mental health professional then needs to ask questions to “translate the patient’s health language into more specific medical language” to guide diagnoses and treatment, Dr. Seawell says.
Low-grade depression can be used to describe a range of different things, Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College, and author of The Power of Different, tells Health. “She may mean she has more feelings of sadness than usual that are pervading more of her day for multiple days, but that she does not feel overwhelmingly down, hopeless, helpless, worthless nor is she having a significant affect on her concentration, sleep nor appetite,” she says. “Or she might mean that she is having a clinical depression but that it is mild.”
Depression is a serious mood disorder that causes severe symptoms that impact how a patient feels, thinks, and deals with daily activities, according to the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH). Major depressive disorder impacts 16.1 million American adults on any given year, per the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Depression—even depression that feels like it’s on the minor end of the spectrum—is important to pay attention to. “If you feel like you have low-grade depression, you could actually have depression,” Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinic director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perlman School of Medicine, tells Health.