Susan Polis Schutz is a filmmaker, poet and greeting card writer. Her new documentary, “The Misunderstood Epidemic: Depression,” aired recently on PBS. The film explores the lives of 12 people who suffer from depression, a clinical disorder which affects approximately 20 million Americans each year. During a phone interview, Schutz explained the filmmaking process and opened up about her own struggle with depression.
Jewish Journal: How did you find the people who you featured in the documentary?
Susan Polis Schutz: I went to 300 support group meetings all over the country and most of these people I found at the support groups—mood disorders groups.
I was looking for diversity and for people who could really explain what depression was and what affect it had on them and their relatives. It was very easy to see who could speak very well and the people who were emotionally involved in what they were saying.
JJ: Everybody who appears in the film is either somebody who’s been living with depression or a family member of the depressed. Why were there no therapists, doctors or scientists interviewed in the film?
SPS: Because I wanted a grassroots depiction of what depression is like and I think the people who suffer from it really have a better view of it.
JJ: Did you struggle with the decision of asking people to open up on camera and be forthcoming about an issue that’s private?
SPS: Yes, I was afraid at the beginning. But other than one woman, a Japanese woman whose face I had to black out, everyone wanted to help people to understand what depression is and they also wanted to help alleviate the stigma. After I got such a great response, I wasn’t afraid any more.
JJ: Peter Yarrow, of the folk trio Peter Paul and Mary, participated in the documentary and spoke about his own depression, how it’s a disease that has been with him for years and that performing was one of the only acts that helped. Was Yarrow eager to be featured in the documentary?
SPS: He was. He’s a very good friend of mine. I talked to him about my depression. He opened up about his own. I told him about the movie I was making. His whole life is about helping others. He immediately said he wanted to be in the film.
JJ: The people being interviewed in the film referred to depression as a mental illness and a biochemical imbalance in the brain. This is one of the take-home messages of the documentary and most of the interviewees are on medication. Can people beat this disease without medication?
SPS: Absolutely. I have one person in the movie who refused to take medication and got better. He says in there that it was through therapy, through knowledge, though support groups and people in his life who were positive and could understand him.
What works for one person may not work for another. Everybody has different reasons [for becoming depressed] or possibly a different trigger – if they have a trigger.
JJ: In the film, you interviewed the Spielmans, Jewish parents whose depressed daughter tragically took her own life. Being Jewish, did you purposely set out to find a Jewish family affected by depression? Was it important to you, on a personal level, to include a Jewish family?
How did you find the Spielmans?
SPS: I met the Spielmans at a dinner party for [Attorney General] Jerry Brown. They told Jerry their story and the circumstances of their daughter’s death in hopes that he would help the cause of mental illness. I approached them later during the dinner and asked if they would be in my documentary because of our shared goal to increase depression awareness. Although their religious affiliation wasn’t my primary reason for wanting to include the Spielmans, it was important to me that a very diverse group of people tell their stories in my film.
JJ: In 2010, you published a book of poetry about your own experience with depression. This may be surprising to people who know you for your optimistic greeting cards.
SPS: It was most surprising to me. My whole life I have been very, very positive.
JJ: When did you become depressed?
SPS: I became depressed about four or five years ago. I can’t remember exactly. I had severe depression and a mental breakdown. I have no idea what happened what to me.
JJ: You can’t identify what you were depressed about?
SPS: I wasn’t depressed about anything. I just had a total mental breakdown. I did not have a specific trigger. The only possibility of a trigger is that I was very tired. I had a genetic basis for depression. My father and most of his relatives suffered from depression and something just cracked my foundation. Being tired and exhausted was the only thing I had. I have a beautiful marriage, a beautiful family, a good career. There was nothing in my life that was sad or troubled, which shows you that anyone can get depressed.
JJ: There was an Indian gentleman in the film, Russ Irani—he said that “you have no interest in life and nothing at all interests you” when you’re depressed. Another interviewee described her depression as a “prison in my mind.” Can you relate to those quotes?
SPS: Absolutely. The dominant feeling I had was an incredible numbness. I had a lot of anxiety and confusion and panic. Being totally numb, not being reactive to anything was how I felt. I couldn’t even talk. When people spoke, it kind of went in and out. That bad lasted only about three months. Being in bed was only for three months. At first I didn’t know what hit me, and I went to a regular doctor. Somebody told me I better see a psychologist. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I went and was immediately diagnosed with clinical depression.
Little by little, I got better. I had a change in my medicine—I went through about eight medications. Going to the support groups, I guess very gradually I started to get better. I was seeing my therapists three times a week back then.
JJ: What medications were you using?
SPS: I don’t really want to push medications because I’m not really for them. I had such bad side effects. I was in a complete fog. I didn’t realize it until I started getting off my medications. I couldn’t converse with anybody. I was very sluggish. That was the main thing for me. It’s very hard because there are a lot of medications and it’s kind of hit or miss.
JJ: Your poetry book is called “Depression and Back: A Poetic Journey through Depression and Recovery.” Do you feel like you’ve recovered?
SPS: No, I definitely haven’t fully recovered, but I’m totally functional. This may be as good as I’m going to get. I don’t know.
JJ: What do you suggest for people living with depression to do?
SPS: First of all, learn as much as you can about depression. Be very, very honest about it. See a therapist as soon as you can. And then consider what they tell you to do. There is also behavioral therapy. Most people have thought patterns and aren’t healthy. The therapist or the books can teach you how to have a healthy approach to life.
JJ: Can you sum up that healthy approach?
SPS: No, I don’t think I could. I’ve had a lot of therapy about it, but I don’t think I can sum it up. I guess: Don’t worry, because it doesn’t help. And think positively.
Visit misunderstoodepidemic.com for a complete schedule of TV airings of Schutz’s documentary, “The Misunderstood Epidemic: Depression.”