Michelle Obama says that she’s been coping with “some form of low-grade depression" this year, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic and the devastating police killings of Black Americans. On a Wednesday, August 5, episode of her eponymous podcast, the former first lady spoke with award-winning journalist Michele Norris about her mental health, and how she’s coping.
“Barack and I, we’ve lived outside of the norm of regular life for quite some time, and what we learned early on in the White House is — in order to stay sane and feel like the human that you once were — is that you have to have a schedule and a routine,” Obama shared. But she went on to add that she’s been struggling to keep up with her standard regimen lately.
“I’m waking up in the middle of the night, ’cause I’m worrying about something or there’s a heaviness,” she said. “I try to make sure I get a workout in. Although there have been periods throughout this quarantine where I just have felt too low.”
“That’s unusual for you,” Norris noted.
“It is unusual,” Obama said. “And it’s a direct result of being out of body, out of mind. Spiritually, these are not fulfilling times. 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.”
Later in the podcast, she added: “I’d be remiss to say that part of this depression is also a result of what we’re seeing in terms of the protests, the continued racial unrest, that has plagued this country since its birth. I have to say that waking up to the news, waking up to how this administration has or has not responded, waking up to yet another story of a Black man or a Black person somehow being dehumanised, or hurt, or killed, or falsely accused of something, it is exhausting. And it has led to a weight that I haven’t felt in my life, in a while.”
Obama is not alone. The pandemic alone has taken a “psychological toll” on many, reports the journal The Lancet Psychiatry. George Floyd’s killing in police custody occurred on May 25, and the next day video of his death — captured by bystanders — was shared widely on social media. Shortly after, rates of depression and anxiety among Black Americans increased at a higher rate than any other group, according to The Household Pulse Survey from the Census Bureau. Between May 21 and May 26, 36% of Black Americans screened positive for symptoms of anxiety or depression (or both); the following week, 41% did, The Washington Post noted. Black Canadians are also disproportionately affected by the virus. In Toronto, Black people and other people of colour make up 86% of COVID cases.
Obama said that she tries to give herself a break when she’s feeling down. She had a few weeks where she had to “surrender” and tell her herself: It’s okay to skip a workout right now. She tried to be kind to herself and acknowledge where she was at. “You have to recognise that you’re in a place, a bad place, in order to get out of it,” she said in the episode. “You kinda have to sit in it for a minute, to know, oh, oh, I’m feeling off. So now I gotta feed myself with something better.”
And she’s doing just that, she said, taking part in nourishing activities such as surrounding herself with loved ones and spending time outside. The former first lady also mentioned that she's still trying to stick with something of a schedule. She especially looks forward to evenings with her family: Every night they have dinner, and do activities such as putting together puzzles or playing spades together, she told Norris. “For me, my spirit is lifted when I am feeling healthy, when I am surrounded by good people, you know?” she said. “So I reach out.”