Michelle Obama suffering from ‘low-grade depression.’ What does that mean?

Obama said she’s “waking up in the middle of the night because I’m worrying about something or there’s a heaviness.” On Thursday, she issued a followup to her revelations.

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Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks during “Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama,” in Atlanta.

Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks during “Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama,” in Atlanta.


Former First Lady Michelle Obama said on her podcast Tuesday she’s suffering from a ”low-grade depression,” which she attributes to coronavirus quarantine, the mental health toll of racism and the “hypocrisy” of the Trump administration.

“These are not, they are not fulfilling times, spiritually,” she told journalist Michele Norris during “The Michelle Obama Podcast. “

“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.” 

One in three Americans are reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety,more than three times the rate from a survey conducted in the first half of 2019, a Census Bureau survey found.

On Thursday, Obama issued a followup statement via Facebook.

“I just wanted to check in with you all because a lot of you have been checking in on me after hearing this week’s podcast. First things first —I ’m doing just fine. There’s no reason to worry about me. Like I said in that conversation with Michele Norris, I’m thinking about the folks out there risking themselves for the rest of us — the doctors and nurses and essential workers of all kinds. I’m thinking about the teachers and students and parents who are just trying to figure out school for the fall. I’m thinking about the people out there protesting and organizing for a little more justice in our country.

“The idea that what this country is going through shouldn’t have any effect on us — that we all should just feel OK all the time — that just doesn’t feel real to me. So I hope you all are allowing yourselves to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. I hope you’re listening to yourselves and taking a moment to reflect on everything that’s coming at us, and what you might be able to do about it. And to all of you who’ve reached out — thank you. I hope you’re also reaching out to all those you’re closest with, not just with a text, but maybe with a call or a videochat. Don’t be afraid to offer them a shoulder to lean on, or to ask for one yourself. Love you all.”

USA TODAY spoke with Vaile Wright, senior director of Health Care Innovation at the American Psychological Association, about what low-grade depression is, who is susceptible and how it can be managed.

What is low-grade depression?

“Low-grade depression is not an official diagnosis. It is probably closest to what we refer to as subclinical depression, which refers to a person who is experiencing depressive symptoms but does not meet the criteria for a depressive disorder,” she said.

What are the symptoms?

“The symptoms are similar to depression – sadness, loss of interest in activities, difficulty concentrating, sleep and appetite disturbances, irritability – and research has shown that subclinical depression has serious consequences for quality of life,” she said.

Obama said she’s “waking up in the middle of the night because I’m worrying about something or there’s a heaviness.”

Who is susceptible?

“We know that stress can lead to subclinical depression, especially when it is chronic and unmanaged, and it goes without saying that we are all living in a very stressful situation right now — the pandemic, systemic racism, economic downfall, upcoming election,” Wright said. “There’s also a great sense of loss right now - whether it’s the loss of a loved one or the loss of what was our ‘normal’ lives. Unfortunately, no one is immune to the stressors right now and the studies I have seen do suggest that people are experiencing increased depression and anxiety.”

Obama said a number of factors are impacting her mental health.

She expressed frustration with Americans who refuse to wear masks. “There’s almost like there’s a limit to our sacrifice and it was about a month and then we just got tired of the virus,” she said. “That’s been disheartening to see so many people who have grown tired of staying at home because the virus didn’t impact them.”

She and Norris also addressed racism. As a Black woman, Obama admits it’s “exhausting” hearing stories of racial injustice in the news.

“We talk about white women clutching their purses at the sight of us, or feeling uncomfortable when we walk in the store,” she said, “but I wonder, do you know how afraid we are?”

How can it be treated?

“We know that psychological treatment such as psychotherapy is effective but there are also many lifestyle or behavioral things that people can do including exercise, meditation and mindfulness, seeking out social connection, and engaging in coping skills to improve their mood,” Wright said.

Obama said staying connected with loved ones and taking a social media break helps her get out of “a bad place.”

She says quarantining with her husband, Barack Obama, and her two daughters, Sasha, 19, and Malia, 22, has helped lift her spirit during tough times. 

“You kinda have to sit in it for a minute, to know, ‘oh oh, I’m feeling off,’” she advised. “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.”

Wright said Obama’s approach is worth replicating.

“We can follow the advice of Obama and engage in the good self-care skills she mentioned she’s doing,” Wright said. “And it’s important to remember, humans are resilient. We have overcome adversity in the past – even if there were times we doubted ourselves – and have often grown stronger for it.”

Read more at usatoday.com

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