Review: HBO Documentary, ‘My Depression’

There is nothing unusual about the occasional bout of depression. A death in the family, the loss of a beloved pet, the stress of a job or just life in general can sometimes leave you feeling gloomy. When depression appears to take on a life of its own and makes every day a struggle, leaving you questioning whether or not you can go on for one more day, then it’s time to seek therapy and get some medical help. The stigma associated with depression makes sufferers reluctant to admit their condition, let alone seek treatment. Is there a way to get the message across in a manner that will take away that stigma and examine the reality?

An animated depiction of depression?

My Depression (The Up and Down and Up of It), co-directed by writer and composer Elizabeth Swados, is a highly entertaining and informative animated HBO documentary detailing the struggles and successes that come with living with and dealing with depression. The songs are catchy, the iconic performers providing the dialogue and performing the musical numbers (especially Steve Buscemi in The Suicide Bus and Sigourney Weaver as the title character, Elizabeth Swados) are excellent in their roles. It’s bright, flashy, catchy and visual, but does it paint the right picture of depression and how it can be treated?

The black cloud

The title character envisions depression as a black cloud that hangs over her head. Despite success and all her accomplishments, this cloud follows Swados everywhere. The people around her use the usual negative cliches and judgments, telling her to snap out of it, to “stop being so self indulgent,” which leads – as it does in many cases – to her feeling shame and hate and developing a self-stigma. She finally feels that she can’t climb out from under that cloud (can’t recover) and she feels as though it’s her fault, so why bother trying? She takes to her bed and gives up, feeling that she is doomed. As Buscemi sings, it can lead you on the roller coaster up and down to the “suicide bus.”

Depression takes different forms for different people

This is Swados’ personal experience with depression and its symptoms. Experiences vary between sufferers as well as throughout different periods during an individual’s life. As she wanders throughout the aisles of the “world’s gloomiest supermarket,” Swados sees shelves lined with depression ingredients such as “Anxiety,” “Misery” and, of course “Shame.”  This accurately depicts how psychologists and psychiatrists are now trying to individualize treatment for each person, rather than lump them all as simply suffering from depression and treating it as such. Instead, therapists try to help individuals back to once more being well, with less chance of relapse.

Making it real

Real therapists treat real people with real problems, and everyone is different. This is one of the main themes running throughout this film. As entertaining as it is, it does release depression from the stigma to which it’s been attached by presenting it in a way that’s watchable for everyone. The title character’s struggles humanize the condition, and explain her feelings. While it’s a highly personal account, it also addresses the judgments of others and the way those attempting to treat this condition are sorting out the different types of depression and the different symptoms involved. The “dark cloud” approach may annoy some people who don’t understand, but this is really how she felt. She tries meditation, exercise, healthy eating and good habits, but she still needs more help.

Taking control

In order to beat depression you have to take control of it. You have to seek a therapist to help you, and he or she may well provide medication to help your individual struggle. The dark cloud in the film can be seen as both bad and good – a visual way to depict and understand what depression feels like every day to someone suffering from the condition while attempting to show that it is possible to climb out from under that cloud to seek help.

This focus toward the end on the fact that depression can be treated is very powerful, especially when Swados finally seeks out professional help. Seeking therapy is the turning point for her. “That’s why it is also important to find a good therapist who can teach you how to cope and work through life’s surprises.” Although the catchy song advocating drugs for treatment of a “hereditary condition” because of a “chemical imbalance” may be her personal experience, as stated before, each case is different. As even the doctor stated “……the drugs help but not all of us and not all of the time.”

For pure entertainment value – as well as utilizing current valid scientific theories presented throughout the film – this personal struggle is well worth watching. My Depression is very moving, powerful and well-made, documenting Swados’ attempt to overcome depression while featuring various stigmas and treatments. It gives hope that one truly can climb out from under that black cloud and, with help, achieve a normal life.