Andrew Solomon spoke recently with Hartford HealthCare’s (HHC) Carol Vassar about stigma, depression, and his new book Far From the Tree. Solomon appears at the Connecticut Forum on Friday, March 7, along with fellow panelists Kay Redfield Jamison and HHC’s Hank Schwartz, MD.
Here’s an excerpt of their conversation:
Q: You’ve been very open about your battles with depression. You’ve also come out openly as a gay man. How have you handled any stigma that’s come your way?
A: I’ve encountered relatively little stigma. People always think that when you talk openly about a mental illness, other people will laugh at you and the stigma will be overpowering. My experience has been that if you talk openly your experience with depression, virtually everyone you meet says “I’m really worried about my sister,” or “I have a child who’s had this problem.”
Being open about being gay took a long time. After I had managed to get out of that closet, I didn’t want to be in another one. So when I was depressed I felt determined not to go around holding onto another dark secret.
Q: Have you encountered people with mental illness who either self-stigmatize or who have been stigmatized by others and seen the effect it has had on them?
A: I encounter those people all the time. Not everyone needs to be open. If someone has the resilience needed to speak out, then that person can choose to be open, and the choice helps other people. But I certainly don’t pass judgment on people who feel that kind of openness doesn’t work for them.
Having a mental illness is very stressful and exhausting, and keeping it secret is very stressful and exhausting. So being open can be a relief. However, it can, equally, be stressful being incredibly open about your situation. So there is no universal law about what everyone should do.
Q: You talk about love as a way of battling depression.
A: I don’t think love can cure someone’s depression, but I think that it helps give people the sense that if they can only get better, there is something of value on the other side of suffering. The sense of being loved is very central and very crucial to recovery, and so is the experience of loving others.
The people who are resilient are often those who know they are well-loved. Such people have more to lean on than do people who are more socially isolated.
Q: It seems like your father, in particular, was very supportive of you at times when you were probably ready to give up on yourself. How important is family? How important are friends (to those diagnosed with depression)?
A: That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about the importance of love. Family and friends are the people who love you—and whom you love—and they’re incredibly important.
People with depression have a natural instinct to isolate themselves. Human interaction becomes too overwhelming. I often say to people who describe having a friend who’s depressed “You need to make sure that the person is never alone.” Sometimes that means talking to them, and sometimes when they are too miserable to talk, it means sitting quietly by their bed. And sometimes when even having another human being in the room feels overwhelming to them, it involves sitting right outside the bedroom door. It never involves going away and it never involves taking seriously their claims that they want to be alone. Depression is a disease of loneliness and the best way to address it is to mitigate that aloneness.
Q: How would you describe your life today? Are you, Andrew Solomon, happy?
A: I would describe my life as essentially very joyful, but with its ups and downs, like anybody’s life. The depression is always lurking. There’s always the possibility it will resurface and in small ways it does resurface on a fairly regular basis. But I take my meds and do my therapy and manage my life stresses and I think, profoundly, that I have a sense of great purpose in my life.
Q: When you come to Hartford, what message do you wish to leave with the people in attendance at the Connecticut Forum?
A: I’d draw on my most recent book (Far from the Tree), in which the message is how powerful love can be and how important acceptance is. You need not only to love someone who’s different from you in some way, but also to accept that person and treat him or her to some degree on his or her own terms. You need to give your child a feeling of self-worth, to help where help is needed and to celebrate where help is not needed.
For more information on The Connecticut Forum’s “An Honest Look at Mental Illness,” visit www.ctforum.org.