Television Review

Shedding light on disease called depression

Author Andrew Solomon is among those profiled in 'Depression.' Author Andrew Solomon is among those profiled in "Depression." (PBS)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 21, 2008

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Depression: Out of the Shadows
On: PBS, Channel 2
Time: Tonight, 9-11

It may seem fatuous to say that PBS's "Depression: Out of the Shadows" is depressing. With its lugubrious tone and its relentless portrayals of despondency, the documentary about depression is a 90-minute dose of sadness, with a tinge of hope at the end. A young mother with postpartum depression has "intrusive thoughts" of hurting her child; a teen boy can't get out of bed; a gangbanger is slowly killing himself on the streets; a corporate workaholic finally has a breakdown and is institutionalized.

But that down-hearted atmosphere is the strength of this film, tonight at 9 on Channel 2. For those who don't suffer from depression, the documentary delivers a solid sense of what it must be like to be "dying inside," as PR agent Terrie Williams describes her experience. Many of those profiled in the film, including writer Andrew Solomon, author of "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression," are remarkably articulate about how it feels. And for those who already know depression first-hand, the film offers the consolation that they are not alone, that people of all ages and from all backgrounds suffer from the illness and many of them do eventually find a way toward healing.

"Depression: Out of the Shadows" doesn't break much new ground, in terms of why depression has become so widespread (the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 18.8 million American adults suffer from depressive disorder). It contains some talk about new studies of brain development to treat depression, along with information about anti-depressants and electroshock therapy. But the focus is on a series of individual cases and how genetics and environmental triggers have coincided to create disaster in each one. "Depression" is best approached as a piece of advocacy for destigmatizing depression and a plea for compassion for those it strikes. As bipolar-disorder sufferer Jane Pauley says during a panel discussion that follows the 90-minute film, depression is often seen as "a mark of poor character" rather than a disease, a misperception that keeps too many people from finding help.

Some of the stories are tragic, particularly that of Jed Satow, a college student who killed himself in 1998. As his mother explains, she'd been repeatedly taught about drug and alcohol abuse among young people; no one had schooled her in the signs of teen depression. But then others stories are more heartening, chronicling the persistence of parents, friends, doctors, mentors, and patients, as they work to address the problem. The film does its best to bring depression out of the shadows, and to show how, sometimes, the clouds can pass by overhead.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit