At the end of a PBS NewsHour a few weeks ago, I listened intently to what seemed to be a startling non-news story. It seemed out of place, though riveting.
And it was entirely newsworthy.
The subject was depression, a medical and mental disease that not only is common but no longer remains hidden behind the doors of the rich and poor. It’s an equal-opportunity malady. It often leads to suicide.
Michael Gerson, a political columnist for the Washington Post, a sometime commentator for the NewsHour and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, proclaimed he suffered from depression. His revelation came when he delivered a guest sermon Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Two days later, he answered questions from PBS’ Judy Woodruff.
Gerson held nothing back. He recently had been hospitalized, reaching the depths of despair and self-loathing.
“Like nearly one in 10 Americans, and like many of you, I live with this insidious chronic disease. Depression is a malfunction of the instrument we use to determine reality,” he said.
Asked how long he had suffered from depression, Gerson said, “Really since my 20s. But, like a lot of people, I thought I was coping. I was on antidepressants. I was able to finish my work. And that’s how a lot of men and women determine whether they’re succeeding or not.
“But I was very much in a downward spiral of depression, that my psychiatrist said, you’re on a dangerous course. And she was exactly right.”
What I learned from listening to Gerson was that his success was deceptive; he hid his severe mental distress behind his work ethic and journalistic achievements. He needed and wanted more from life.
As he said during his guest sermon, his most effective antidepressant, while living in his “right mind,” was devotion to a loving God. He said, “Love is the heart of all things. God promises strength; when it fails, there’s perseverance; when it fails, there’s hope; when it fails, there’s love, which never fails.”
Gerson explained, clearly and concisely, that the depression-ridden brain produces thoughts of self-loathing: no one likes or cares about me. It’s untrue. However, the brain, affected by chemical reactions, particularly during a “depressive episode,” betrays a destructive reality that “really takes other people to break into that and say, this is wrong. This is not true. What you’re thinking is not correct.”
In his sermon, Gerson said, “Despair grows like a tumor.”
Speaking in the spiritual confines of the National Cathedral instead of a television studio, Gerson called for the power of God’s grace and promise of hope to cope with depression and its debilitating effects. Gerson made a strong case for divine intervention. His confession within the majestic cathedral spoke powerfully to the role of God amid personal distress.
During his PBS interview, Gerson acknowledged the crying need for professional help and compassion from family and friends.
“People should get professional help. You can’t will yourself out of this disease, any more than you can will yourself out of tuberculosis. This is a physical disease that—where you need help… but isolation can be deadly. And that has to be broken by family and also broken by the people themselves that are involved with this,” Gerson said.
Over the years I’ve known people suffering from depression. I’ve read about suicide, particularly among young people who feel unable to cope and battle the life-threatening despair. I’ve tried to understand the pain.
Somehow, when a public figure decides to remove the cloak of secrecy about this pervasive disease, depression becomes more understandable. Maybe, Michael Gerson opened the minds and hearts of those suffering from a common brain disease, giving them permission to claim their own pulpits to disclose their pain and seek professional assistance.
They need not feel stigmatized.
For those of us in the realm of family and friends, Gerson offered us a pathway to provide compassion and caring.
We can donate grace. We can express friendship and love.
If this Washington Post columnist were concluding this column, he might write that despair is not a person’s destiny, that hope is a healthy choice and that God’s love, when combined with medical intervention, can be a strong antidepressant.
Gerson might add this admonition: don’t give up the fight. Life is too precious—even if perilous at times.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.