Bill Bernat can’t cure depression.
Instead he’s found a way to bridge the chasm between those afflicted with it and everyone else — especially friends and family — to help loosen its powerful grip. He first felt it when he was 8 years old.
Bernat’s funny and uplifting talk about connecting with depressed friends at TEDxSnoIsleLibraries has over 1 million views on TED’s official website since it was reposted there.
Sno-Isle Libraries organizes annual TEDx Talks and gives local speakers the chance to present on important ideas and subjects. Sno-Isle’s YouTube channel adds another 102,000 views to the total. Bernat’s talk is the only Sno-Isle one that’s been picked up by TED.
Bernat, a 54-year-old Seattle resident, comedian and mental health awareness advocate, discusses his philosophies, advice and experience.
Why is your talk resonating with people?
Nearly everyone has friends or family who have lived with depression. Most people want to connect with these loved ones, but keep a distance because depression looks mysterious and heavy. In my talk, I try to demystify some aspects of depression, and make the discussion easy and fun. So, I suspect it resonates because I am shining a light on a darkness that separates people from their loved ones.
Why is depression important to talk about?
Depression directly impacts quality of life for hundreds of millions of people who live with it, and indirectly impacts almost everybody else. Yet many folks are afraid to talk about it, which isolates depressed people and discourages them from seeking treatment. By talking openly about depression, we have an opportunity to create connections and help people live better.
What’s the best way to connect with depressed people?
It’s more than I can summarize here. Readers should watch the talk for a more complete answer. Here’s a key point, though: Talk to depressed people as equals, like they’re not broken or even different from you. When I lived with depression, I didn’t let many people get close to me. The ones I did let in were the ones who did not condescend or patronize. If you want to connect with depressed people, talk to them like you talk to anyone else. That’s why we use the phrase “people living with depression,” because they are people just like everyone else.
You kept the atmosphere light and positive during your talk. How did you manage that?
Few things create an instant feeling of human connection like laughing together about things that scare us. I’ve long known that and wanted to help other people feel that joy. Depression is tricky, because most people are taught to be sad and heavy when the topic comes up. I’ve learned that the No. 1 thing I can do is be happy inside and very comfortable with what I’m talking about. This says, “I don’t want your sympathy, and it’s OK to laugh” more than words can.
Are you worried people might take it the wrong way?
I try to avoid being flippant, so I can smile without worrying if it’s offensive. I give myself permission to have fun by rationalizing it this way. Instead of revering the heaviness that takes people down, I want to take away its power and replace it with lightness. My goal is to make life look more attractive to those still living it.
What do you hope people take away from your talk?
I want people to understand that it can feel good to connect with a loved one living with depression, even if the loved one remains depressed. It’s good for them (the depressed person), too. Maybe we can’t eliminate depression so easily, but we can connect with people in spite of it.
You starting feeling depressed at a young age. What was that like?
I didn’t interpret it. I just felt it. I thought that was normal. I was very surprised when I learned as an adult that most people don’t experience depression. I found it incredibly amusing to realize I had been wrong. The human mind is fascinating.
Did it stem from a specific event or is it simply how your brain is wired?
I think a little of both, but dwelling on those things has not been a part of my personal healing and recovery process. I did not need to dissect the past to have a better life. I adopted this attitude, “I can’t change my past, but I can change my future.” In many cases, our brains can be rewired around depression with repeated effort.
Did you ever seek help?
Yes, I saw therapists and tried medication. For me, those things were sometimes helpful in the short term. My long-term solution was found through different means.
How did you deal with it?
It took me realizing that nobody was going to solve it for me, and nobody owed me a happy life. At some point, I realized I could either continue to live in the pain of depression, or start trying to find my way out. I started saying to myself, “This is your situation, what are you going to do about it?” I tried many things to learn to live without depression, and found what worked for me.
Is it still an everyday struggle?
Not at all. I had a personal transformation many years ago, and that abject hopelessness and severe depression have not returned. I have bad moments, but I have so many tools now and a huge support network. I have a lot of gratitude.
Why does depression affect some, but not others?
That’s a great question. I love that you think I might know. People get into questions of genetics versus environment, but does anybody know? Can it be known? Even the word “depression” is a vague and partial assessment of what actually goes on within a person. Scientists and doctors can’t even agree on a single answer to the question, “What is the mind?”
How can our society improve the way we deal with depression?
It would be a great improvement if society were to see mental health conditions as more akin to physical health conditions. No judgment, no condescension, no fear of talking about it openly. That’s why I talk about depression with lightness, to share that idea by example. We see this change already starting because younger people have a much less stigmatizing view of mental health. However, why wait? If you live with depression, you don’t need to wait for society to change. You can have a better life now, or in the near future.
Evan Thompson: 360-544-2999; firstname.lastname@example.org.