Several years ago I found myself trapped beneath a lead blanket of depression. While most of that time passed in a slow, black blur, I still can recall what I’d tell myself each day in an effort to keep going:
Your feelings are real.
Today I’m healthy and happy, but I still hear that sentiment pretty regularly—on podcasts. The medium has made astounding progress in opening up the ways we discuss and understand mental health issues. Podcasts don’t just entertain us; they’re downright therapeutic.
Seattle library assistant Amy Swindle (aka @amezilla) told me that though she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in high school, it had been years since she had seen a therapist. But she started listening avidly to podcasts a few months ago, when her commute grew longer. As she heard comedians, actors, and everyday folks expose their own inner lives on shows like Jimmy Pardo’s Never Not Funny and Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird (both of which have featured comedian Dave Holmes as a guest), she started to think it was time to go back.
“They talk about things they went through like it’s something that happens, it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she told me. “I just thought that was so fascinating. The more I listened, the more I was like, OK, I’m feeling these things. They managed to get help. I think it’s time for me to do that, too.”
Just five or six years ago, I had a hard time finding that sort of validation in the media. While, yes, podcasts existed—in fact, I even hosted one of my own—the selection was much narrower, and it seemed everyone was still figuring out how to use them. Meanwhile, TV and film seemed to reduce stories to short, tidy packages with happy endings. (For the most part, I think they still do.) A couple of books helped, but it’s super hard to focus on a 200-page memoir when you can barely climb out of bed.
Back then it took me months before I recognized my own symptoms of depression. Once I did, I still struggled with how to think and talk about it. Mental illness occurs inside the body and manifests itself in behavior that may appear lazy or strange (sleeping all day, not showering, being afraid to leave the house). So a monstrous symptom of depression is how easy it is to convince yourself you’re making it up. That’s why I forced myself to constantly remember my feelings were “real.”
It took me several more months to muster the courage to tell someone, weeks to make that crucial first therapy appointment. When you factor in the time it took to actually get treatment, find the right medication, and so on, I figure I was sick for about two years. Today, I wonder if the timetable might’ve been shorter if podcasts had been as prominent as they are now, with all types of people sharing perspectives on all types of issues. (Heck, there’s even a podcast about depression and professional wrestling.)
Why is the medium so perfect for connecting with people struggling with depression or other mental health issues? Of course podcasts are portable: They can be enjoyed while we commute to the office, work out at the gym, clean the bathroom. But as I know from experience, there are other people out there: the ones who can’t do anything else because they’re too sick, tired, or sad. Podcasting can reach those people just as easily.
Podcasting’s other obvious advantage is intimacy, which can foster deep bonds between creators and listeners. There are a handful of podcasters (Marc Maron, Pete Holmes, Kulap Vilaysack) I feel I know as well as some of my friends because I hear them speak directly into my ears each week about their lives.
And this may sound strange, but the voices of a few podcasters seem to have a calming, peaceful effect on me after a particularly stressful day. (Duncan Trussell and Karina Longworth come to mind.) For listeners who may be too ill to relate to others face to face, or can’t find the language for their own feelings, these aural connections can be essential, even life-altering.
Especially when podcasters explore, with great candor, their own mental health. Comedians, in particular, are drawn to and thrive on this medium and topic; a podcast is one of the few places where, if a comedian doesn’t feel like being funny, she doesn’t have to be. Celebrities can appear on podcasts without projects to promote or fear of being reduced to sound bites. This comfort can lead to exchanges that are deeper, sadder, smarter, funnier, or weirder than what usually lands on traditional media.
In a notable 2010 episode of WTF With Marc Maron, Robin Williams spoke about his history of depression and addiction. The following year, writer Todd Hanson opened up about a suicide attempt he’d made. By 2012 dozens of people, including Adam Carolla, Chris Hardwick, and Maria Bamford, were appearing on comedian Paul Gilmartin’s podcast, Mental Illness Happy Hour, solely to discuss their inner struggles.
Gilmartin’s podcast has allowed him to explore his own interior life and that of his guests in greater and more thoughtful detail. “I think because I’ve shared so many god-awful things that I’ve done and thought and felt on the podcast,” he tells me, his guests come in unguarded. “‘Oh, this guy’s clearly so much more fucked-up than I am. I know he’s not gonna judge me.’”
Gilmartin makes a conscious effort to explore stories that aren’t black and white, often giving guests a couple hours at the microphone and frequently sharing his own struggles with depression, alcoholism, and childhood sexual trauma. Almost immediately, he realized his show was making an impact, and now he devotes nearly half of each episode to reading listeners’ stories and feedback on the air.
“I get emails every day from people all over the world who tell me things: They changed their mind about killing themselves, they left an abusive relationship, they are now in therapy even though their family thinks they’re weak for doing it,” Gilmartin says. “Somebody will say, ‘I’m not as scared and I now realize I’m not alone,’ and that was really the reason I created the podcast. I knew what it was like to be alone and confused by my mental illness and my addictions.“
Podcasts aren’t what spurred me to seek therapy, but I do believe they enhance my healthy state of mind today. These podcasts make me feel more comfortable with my own past and, as Gilmartin says, feel a little less alone. I hope my darkest days are behind me, but if I ever need help again, I’m confident I won’t feel the same hesitance and shame I battled the first time around.
Other listeners agree. “It was really different five or six years ago, when something like ‘bipolar’ automatically flashed lights of crazy when people heard it,” Swindle says. “It was harder to talk to people.”
She pauses before adding, “Now I’m someone who brings it up. I’m not gonna hide from everyone because it’s such an important part of being me.”