Interview with David O'Leary of WBOS Radio, 2001

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Excerpts, aired January 21, 2001 and March 25, 2001 on stations WBOS, WROR, and WKLB

David O'Leary
We're going to take on a subject this morning that for many people is extremely difficult to talk about -- depression. We're speaking with Julie Totten, who is the president and founder of Families for Depression Awareness. For something that certainly affects all of us, from just being a little depressed to clinical depression, it is a very very difficult subject for many people to talk about, the stigma attached to it and so forth, isn't it?

Julie Totten
That's right. And stigma is one of the main reasons that people don't seek help for depression.

David O'Leary
What are your personal reasons for getting this organization under way and your family's involvement with depression?

Julie Totten
About ten years ago, I lost my brother to suicide. He was undiagnosed and we really didn't know what was wrong with him. In struggling to understand, I learned that he had all the major symptoms of depression. Depression was completely new to me. I learned that it is a highly treatable medical condition and that 80% of the cases are treatable.

At the same time, I realized that my father had all the symptoms of depression. So, I was able to help him get diagnosed and treated, but at the age of 55, which is really late in his life. He had struggled with bouts of depression all his life. So after receiving treatment, my father emerged a new man and he's been great ever since then. I am proud that I helped my father, but it's still been a great loss to have lost my brother and we would really like to help other families avoid this tragedy of suicide and the tremendous pain of depression.

David O'Leary
How do you make the distinction between 'I'm feeling kind of lousy these days, I'm a little blue, I'm in a funk', and 'I'm clinically depressed'?

Julie Totten
That's a good question because there is a difference, a major difference between just feeling down and blue and being clinically depressed. When you're down, perhaps you've had a problem with your job or difficulty with a relationship, you can do things to make yourself feel better. Maybe you talk to your mother or a friend, or maybe you do something you enjoy doing, like going for a bike ride. And you feel a little up and down, but eventually you feel better because you have some control over your mood.

Whereas someone with clinical depression really does not have control over their mood, they have a mood disorder of the brain. You might say to the depressed person, 'why don't you just pull yourself together, go visit your friends and you'll feel better.' And the problem is the depressed person doesn't feel better. They feel miserable and their symptoms get worse over time. Their symptoms are also more severe.

David O'Leary
I think I heard a physician talking about it in terms of when it begins to impact other areas of your life, that would be work, seeing family, and diet and so forth. Does that ring true with you?

Julie Totten
Yes, that's right. And I should just mention some of the symptoms for you. If you are experiencing several of these symptoms over a period of 2 weeks, then you are probably depressed. And the symptoms are: feeling miserable and sad, and distraught, you lose interest in your activities, such as reading or whatever you like to do, you don't take pleasure in those activities anymore. You might feel anxious and irritable towards people. You have trouble remembering things. Everybody is on a quick schedule these days and it becomes very difficult to remember everything that you need to keep track of. And you may feel very tired and guilty about experiences. You may sleep too much or too little, eat too much or too little. And another sign of depression is to drink a lot of alcohol or abuse drugs. Often people self medicate. Lastly, the most pressing symptom is to talk about death or suicide and if that happens you should seek treatment right away and that should always be taken very seriously.

David O'Leary
I think in family situations, it's kind of hard to know when to jump in and intervene with someone. But, that is a real red flag. Somebody who mentions suicide, isn't mentioning it for no reason.

Julie Totten
Yes, if they are talking about suicide or if they say things like they don't think people need them anymore or maybe people would be better off without them. That's not normal and that's not something that a person in a normal state wants to do. You should always try to get a hold of their doctor immediately.

David O'Leary
The work of your organization, Families for Depression Awareness seeks to reduce stigma through a variety of programs. To let people know that this goes on, it occurs in many families. It happens even more than most people realize. So what are some of the ways that you go about raising awareness?

Julie Totten
Our main project is Family Profiles. We interview people already diagnosed with depression along with a family member and we create these profiles which describe their symptoms, how they cope with the condition and how their families helped them seek treatment. Then families can access these profiles on our web site and email them to other families at risk. So it really puts a face on depression rather than just a list of symptoms. People can see a photograph, read about a person, and understand it from a story perspective. There will be different profiles of different types of people, teenagers, elderly people, people in their 20s or 30s. It helps people see in a real way, what depression is, and that it can affect anyone.

David O'Leary
I imagine that would be as helpful for the families in helping them cope with what's going on as it is for the individual who is suffering from depression.

Julie Totten
Yes, because the profiles also help people understand that there are different ways that they can help, even a reluctant family member. That can be a frustrating aspect. With my father, he was not open to seeking treatment. We really had to brainstorm a number of ways to get him into treatment. These profiles really help you in a number of ways. And they also help families like mine who have been affected by depression and suicide to raise awareness. We're the ones who are most willing to speak out about this issue.

David O'Leary
Do you find that after a tragedy, such as what happened with your brother, are people willing, anxious, or perhaps reluctant to talk about this? Maybe after a time, after they get over some of the grief, they want to do something, be very active?

Julie Totten
Yes, absolutely. I have heard that from a number of other families, like my family. When you lose someone to this condition, or if you have someone in the family suffering from it, you really gain a great perspective on it and you really want to help other people. It's affected your life, and you want to contribute. And it's difficult for families to do that. Right now, they can join organization, write some letters to a senator. But there isn't a lot that they can do about raising awareness. And so these profiles will give them something to do and some way to contribute.

Family Profiles

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