As soon as Northwestern psychiatrist Aderonke Bamgbose Pederson heard Michelle Obama say she’s experiencing “low-grade depression,” Pederson knew she wanted to affirm and amplify the former first lady’s words.
Obama’s acknowledgement on her podcast that she feels uncharacteristically low, that she struggles with sleeplessness, that she’s exhausted and weighed down by the coronavirus pandemic and racial strife in the United States, mirrors what many of Pederson’s patients describe, and lends the vocabulary — and permission — for others who may be struggling to put words to what they’re feeling.
Pederson contacted Altha Stewart, president of the American Psychiatric Association until 2019 (the first Black president of the 175-year-old organization). She also reached out to Chicago psychiatrists Crystal Clark and Brandi Jackson. A Saturday morning Zoom call was arranged.
“We shared the experience of Mrs. Obama’s words resonating with us, both as psychiatrists and as Black women,” Stewart told me during an interview with all four physicians. “We know from our personal and professional experience that these are the same feelings that many Black women — no matter their socioeconomic status, no matter where they are regionally in the country, no matter where they work or how much education they have or whether they have kids or not — that today, between the coronavirus anxiety and fear and the ongoing new awareness on the part of America that racial injustice has been a part of our lives since the beginning of our existence in this country, Mrs. Obama articulated something that needs to be amplified.”
They decided to write an open letter to Obama.
“Dear Mrs. Obama,” it begins. “As Black female psychiatrists in the United States, we thank you for your openness in reflecting on your mental health in these times. We stand in solidarity with the vulnerability you expressed, which we know many other Black women experience.”
They shared the letter with several professional and personal groups of Black, female-identifying psychiatrists. Two hundred added their names within hours.
“For Black women, especially Black women in a public space, once our voice gets out there it’s almost like we don’t have control over the narrative that comes around it,” said Jackson, a psychiatrist with Rush University Medical Center and the co-founding director of The Institute for Antiracism in Medicine. “There’s a tendency for Black women’s pain to either be overpathologized — ‘Oh, she’s angry’ — or underpathologized, where when Black women express legitimate pain, legitimate suffering, signs of depression or anxiety, it’s sort of whisked under a rug or not attended to. It’s really hard to find places where Black women get to be in the middle. When I heard Mrs. Obama’s statement, I thought, ‘This is a rational response to the time we’re in,’ and I thought it was incredibly important to legitimize it.”
Historically, Stewart said, the psychiatric field has steered clear of publicly weighing in on social issues, but that’s beginning to change.
“Psychiatry did not see itself as having a major role in these major social issues,” Stewart said. “But that’s evolving. We’ve been talking over the last few decades about wanting to be more involved in the issues that impact communities.”
We talked about Desmond Tutu’s famous quote, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
“As psychiatrists, the first thing we care about is why is this person experiencing anxiety, why is this person experiencing depression,” Pederson said. “And so until we answer that question, until we care, as physicians, about the why, I don’t think we can truly fulfill our Hippocratic oath. In this case, the social factors become the why, and it’s no longer a political conversation; it’s a life-or-death conversation.”
Pederson hopes the open letter keeps that conversation going and invites more people to take part.
Obama has a rich history of openly discussing topics that are often stigmatized and kept under wraps. In her 2018 memoir, “Becoming,” she wrote about experiencing a miscarriage and using in vitro fertilization to get pregnant. She wrote about seeking out marriage counseling when she and Barack Obama struggled with balancing each other’s schedules and needs. Her public interviews carry an air of candor and relatability that few former first ladies can match.
“She is our modern-day superwoman,” said Clark, a psychiatrist with Northwestern Medicine. “And for her to be able to share her vulnerability and that she experiences challenges given the heaviness of two pandemics — that of racial injustices and of COVID-19 — really helps Black women recognize that they can be strong and successful, but also vulnerable.”
“What Mrs. Obama is really saying is, ‘It’s OK to say I’m not OK today,’” Stewart added.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @heidistevens13.