DEPRESSION: Out of the Shadows
Take One Step: A PBS Health Campaign
DEPRESSION: Out of the Shadows + TAKE ONE STEP: Caring for Depression, with Jane Pauley  

Faces of Depression: Terrie Williams
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Terrie Williams

As founder of her own public relations agency, Terrie Williams represented the likes of Eddie Murphy and Miles Davis. But in addition to handling a superstar client list, Williams was also managing dysthymia, a form of low-level but debilitating depression. Eventually, she went public with her story, kicking off her commitment to guiding people in deep emotional pain onto a path of healing and wholeness. To this end, Williams started the Stay Strong Foundation, which serves the nation's youth. A licensed clinical social worker with degrees from Brandeis and Columbia Universities, Williams is also the bestselling author of four books, including her latest, entitled Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting (Scribner).


How long do you think you suffered from dysthymia before naming and treating it?
Reflecting on my life, I realize that mild feelings of depression began creeping up when I was in college. I was an excellent student, I worked hard, and I was even better at hiding my pain behind a mask that told the world that I was fine. Deep down I felt that something was wrong, but like so many other walking wounded, I didn't quite know what it was. I just went on pretending.

Even throughout my career as a high-profile public relations entrepreneur, I took care of everyone else around me while neglecting my own needs. It wasn't until a few years ago that I broke down, collapsing from the weight of the world on my shoulders. The mask finally cracked wide open. I was taken to a therapist who diagnosed me with clinical depression. Finally, it had a name, and I was relieved to learn that I could be helped.

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You've discussed the stigma surrounding depression within the African American community, which must have made it very difficult for you to discuss your own struggle. What made you "go public" with your story?
After I survived my breakdown a few years ago, which occurred after years of quietly ignoring the reality that something, and I didn't know what, was wrong with me, I knew that I wasn't the only one in trouble. I realized that if I this happened to me, a clinical social worker who didn't recognize the symptoms, there had to be millions of others who were also dying inside. I wanted to speak to those unable to make sense of the turmoil going on inside them, and who are unaware of what can be done about it.

I "outed" my own depression first in a magazine and it generated an avalanche of understanding from more than 10,000 people - family, friends, and thousands of readers who spoke to me for the first time about their own experiences with depression. I have been rewarded with a mission to bring the issue of depressive disorders into the national spotlight through Black Pain. But what Black Pain actually does is turn the focus off of me and onto the broader community. It is my gift to them to open up the conversation about our pain, which will allow us to deal with the truth so the healing can begin.

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You expertly masked your depression in public, achieving great professional success. Do you think that there is a large percentage of Americans who are experiencing a similar struggle, and if so, what should or can they do?
The fact is that major depression affects approximately 15 million American adults a year. While that is only eight percent of the population - and it doesn't even account for our youth - it still represents a lot of troubled people.

I suspect that the number is probably a lot higher. So many of us walk around passing for normal when in fact we're ticking time bombs, ready to explode at the slightest provocation. We tend to see the symptoms of our sickness once they're out of control, in the daily headlines reporting violence and crime. But at home, at work, in school, everywhere, all kinds of destructive behavior toward ourselves or others is sounding the alarm on our unspeakable pain.

We self-soothe our emotional and psychological wounds through eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, working 24/7, excessive gambling or shopping, promiscuous sex, hiding from the world, and more violence and crime. What must happen is that we must finally come out of the shadows of our depression, speak about it, and get professional help that addresses our root trauma.

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What do you do now to care for your physical and mental health?
Managing depression takes work. It is an ongoing challenge that I face every day. What helps me most is identifying and controlling the factors that trigger my depression. I know that if I don't get enough sleep, if I become overwhelmed with too many projects, or if I'm overloaded with too many demands on my time, my mood could spiral into depression, and I will have a very tough time. So what works for me is efficiently managing my time, making time for adequate rest, eating healthy meals, working out with my trainer, committing to treatment which includes regular talks with my therapist and medication, and maintaining a close relationship with God. I've been fortunate to find a balance that nurtures my mind, body, and spirit.

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You have devoted yourself to mentoring young people at risk, and helping them navigate the challenges of life, including depression. What's your advice on the first step people can take to obtain help?
My advice is to be honest with yourself. Tell somebody. It's clear to me that when we share our stories - the good, the bad, the real - it gives us strength. It lets us know that we're not standing on the ledge alone, and it encourages us to face our own truth.

Not long ago I spoke to a group of students. The entire morning before my arrival at the school, I had been battling a depressive episode that left me feeling drained and down. But I was determined to honor my commitment to the students. When I stood in front of those kids, I decided to tell them the truth about how I had been feeling all day. But I wanted them to know that I was there for them. Those kids were absolutely phenomenal. They could relate to how I was feeling and were blown away by my honesty. They really appreciated me being real with them and showing them that none of us - adults included - are perfect. Telling the truth about our pain, to ourselves and others, is always the first step in honoring ourselves and getting the help we need.

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Can you tell us about your book Black Pain? What drove you to write it?
Black Pain was born out of my own struggle with debilitating depression. I wrote the book as a way to show us ourselves through the mirror of shared feelings, thoughts, and experiences reflected by practically every walk of life - from the corporate executive to our youth, our moms and men, to gang bangers - so that we recognize what depression looks, sounds, and feels like in plain English.

And I want all of us to understand that there is treatment and that we don't have to go on suffering in silence. My goal for Black Pain is to empower us to do the real work necessary to heal and move forward in a whole, healthy life, to free ourselves from the bondage of depressive disorders. But it all starts with admitting that we have a problem and speaking honestly about it.

Learn more about Terrie Williams and depression in communities of color

Terrie Williams' Web Site:

The Stay Strong Foundation:

Dr. Annelle Primm, Director of Minority and National Affairs for the American Psychiatric Association:

Science News About Diversity and Mental Health from the National Institute of Mental Health: science-news/ index-diversity-and-ethnic-groups-news.shtml

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