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Political columnist Michael Gerson on coping with ‘insidious’ depression

Michael Gerson is a political columnist for the Washington Post and a regular contributor to the NewsHour. But this past weekend, he delivered a sermon at the Washington National Cathedral that focused on a more personal topic: his battle with depression. Gerson joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his experience with the "chronic insidious disease" and why he chose this moment to share it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    His is a regular voice on the "NewsHour." Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson fills in from time to time as part of our regular Friday wrap-up of the week's political news.

    But, this past Sunday, he delivered the guest sermon at Washington's National Cathedral. It focused not on politics, but on something more personal.

    He revealed that he battles depression.

  • Michael Gerson:

    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.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Michael Gerson is with me now.

    Welcome to the program.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Good to be with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael, how long have you known that you had depression?

  • Michael Gerson:

    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 really very much in a downward spiral of depression, that my psychiatrist said, you're on a dangerous course.

    And she was exactly right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What made you decide to talk publicly about it?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, I was asked to do this sermon months ago, so it came at just the time that I had, about two weeks before, had a medical hospitalization for depression, and had been a week in the — hospitalized.

    And coming out of that experience, you have to make a choice. Are you going to be public about it, are you not going to be public?

    And part of the problem here is stigma. There should be no stigma attached to this. And I thought I would give the message pretty pure and let people deal with it the way they want.

    But the response has been extraordinary, and a lot of it from people who look like they're coping themselves, if — you know, public people that you think, you know, they're successful. And they're not. They're on the same kind of path. And it's a dangerous one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You said — among other things, in the sermon, you said, over time, despair can grow inside you like a tumor.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How has it affected your life?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, it's interesting, because I kept a journal at the low point of my last depression that got me in the hospital.

    And you write things, you know, I'm a burden to my friends, or no one cares about me, that are just lies. They just are not true. But, at that moment when you write them, you believe they're true. And that very much is the function of your brain, related to certain chemical reactions, where you get a depressive episode, and it interprets it in ways that are consistent with your kind of brain patterns, and you end up thinking, no one likes me.

    And it seems, particularly when you're isolated, it can be very dangerous, because all you have then is this — these thoughts in your own head, these ruminations in your own head. And it really takes other people to try to break into that and say, this is wrong. This is not true. What you're thinking is not correct.

    And there are a lot of ways to recover from that, but it really is — you have to have a recognition that you're not right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I think, for many people, it's striking that someone as successful as you are, a columnist for this important newspaper, The Washington Post, speechwriter in the Bush White House, you have had a public role for a long time, and yet you have been battling this year after year.

    Explain how you can both be in the public eye, be doing the important work you're doing, and be dealing with this.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, you do it by husbanding your energy to do the things you have to do in your life, and then letting a lot of other things in your life, whether it's family or social engagement or a lot of other things, slide.

    And, you know, eventually, that's all you have left is a work life. And that was the situation where — which I was in. And it was no way to live. And it really was on a bad path.

    But I know people that have — that are — you know, struggle with depression, prominent teachers. I got some from college professors at Harvard University today. I got some from other media figures.

    It's a broader group of people than you think. And part of it is because people can cope in their work life, but they're not really coping in the rest of their life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you said in the sermon — I mean, you said a number of things that I wish we had time to talk about.

    But, at one point, you, of course, were talking about your own faith. And you talked about, when all else fails, there's love.

    How does that play a role?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, even at the bottom of your depression, you sometimes get hints and glimmers of hope. And it's usually someone coming to you and showing you that they care about you deeply, that they love you deeply.

    And that can be professionals, it can be family, it can be friends. But it's — you know, a lot of people think, oh, I don't want to get involved. But someone who is in a depressive episode like that needs to know that they're cared for.

    And I — of course, I'm a Christian. I come from a Christian background. And I think that there is a broader divine love involved as well here, that everybody is created in God's image and is equal before him.

    And part — remembering that, remembering that you're as valuable as everybody else, can be part of a recovery. And I think a lot of people have that experience.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the things that's clearly going to come — is coming from this is, others are responding.

    What do you say? What does your own experience, do you think, say, both to people who are experiencing depression, have been battling depression, and the people around them who love them?

  • Michael Gerson:

    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.

    You know, I'm not an example here. This was a fairly recent depressive episode. I know I will get one again. That's the nature of a chronic disease. But you need to put in place the structures by which, when you need to be rescued, that there are people there to rescue you.

    My psychiatrist was really a godsend and was — I thought I was coping. She said: You're not. This is not the way to live.

    And everyone needs everyone — who is a depressive needs someone in their life to say this, that you're not living the life you could live. You're, in fact, much too hard on yourself. You're living in a kind of small little world of your own creation. And you need to come out of it.

    And I think family and friends can play a really important role there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I thought it was so important to try to have a conversation with you.

    I was struck when you said one — nearly one in 10 Americans are battling depression.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And hearing your story can make a difference.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, thank you, Judy. I appreciate that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Gerson, we thank you.

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