Laurel Braitman: From Healthcare Workers To The Rest Of Us — How Can We Better Cope?

Jul 31, 2020
Originally published on August 1, 2020 9:30 am

About The Episode

Healthcare jobs are already stressful. Add a pandemic... and ongoing police brutality? And it's a lot. We hear from physicians of color and TED Fellow Laurel Braitman about taking care of ourselves.

About Laurel Braitman

Senior TED fellow Laurel Braitman is a writer and clinical chaplain in training. She is a professor and the director of writing and storytelling at the Stanford School of Medicine, where she leads free writing workshops for medical students, physicians, and other healthcare professionals.

Braitman's writing about science, nature, beauty, and loss has appeared in the New York Times, Guardian, National Geographic and more. Her forthcoming book, House of the Heart, is about "growing up, mortality and how we might live with the perspective of a terminal disease without the dire prognosis."

She has a PhD from MIT in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society, and a BA from Cornell University.

Featured Speakers

Brené Brown: The Power Of Vulnerability

Vulnerability is a key part of being human. Social worker and researcher Brené Brown explores the role of vulnerability—and connection—in processing difficult moments and managing our mental health.

Hailey Hardcastle: Why Students Should Have Mental Health Days

Teen activist Hailey Hardcastle fought for Oregon students to have mental health days in schools, just like sick days. She talks about how we all need to look after our mental health.

Andrew Solomon: Depression, The Secret We Share

Depression, grief, and sadness are each emotions that can take us by surprise. As a writer and psychology professor, Andrew Solomon knows how important it is to understand their differences.


If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. And the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.

This month the FCC approved 988 to be the national three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, similar to 911 for emergency services. As of this date of publish, the 988 is not currently active nationally but will be soon. In the meantime, please use 1-800-273-8255.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and on today's show, ideas about processing - processing everything that's happening to us and the people around us.

BRANDON TURNER: I think a lot of people, when they go into medicine - there's the expectation of pain and trauma and, at times, death. But I think the COVID pandemic is something which no one could have foreseen, at least not to this magnitude. It's surreal. You know, there are moments where I feel like the hospital is actually this sanctuary from everything that's going on outside because there's so much pain and calamity outside the hospital. And then there are other moments where what I'm seeing or what I have seen in the hospital feels itself like something that I would love to escape from, and I can't.

ZOMORODI: Health care jobs are already stressful. And now the pandemic on top of the ongoing police brutality - it's putting even more of a strain on health care workers, especially those of color.

TURNER: My name is Brandon Turner. I'm a resident physician starting the Radiation Oncology Program here at Harvard.

ZOMORODI: Brandon is one of a handful of Black doctors working in his department. And when George Floyd was killed by police, it really shook him.

TURNER: It feels senseless, feels like the only reason that this could be happening is people just don't care about your life. They don't value you. They don't see this as your home. You don't have as much of a right to breathe in the same space that we do in this country, and that's hard to accept.

ZOMORODI: Back in med school, Brandon used to take writing workshops to help him process. Recently, he decided to go back.

TURNER: I first heard about George Floyd at the end of a long call night. Initially, when I saw the video of his death, I cried. And part of my tears were fueled by a sense of powerlessness. I cried because despite all my training and the years I spent doing the right things, I felt I could influence little outside of the hospital. In that moment, I wished I could tell my community and other people of color that I would do it all. I would be the judge and the police and the doctor and the husband and the friend and the protester. I wanted to tell my community that the hurting would finally stop, that we would not have to pay the price of death for having the same ups and downs that make us all human. But I can't, and I knew it.

There are moments like now where, in the hospital, I actually don't feel - and I did not feel recently - like I could make a difference. I saw nationally, it felt like our entire health system was failing. Before our eyes and the people that it was failing for the most were the people that felt like me. These were people that look like my parents. And so in a way, the hospital became this reminder of my own inadequacies. I felt guilt in that I was insulated and away from a lot of the suffering that people outside of the hospital were feeling. And I think overlapping that with the racist trauma, some by the police and others by citizenry, they just were collected into this cauldron of suffering and trauma that I just was not prepared to deal with.

ADJOA BOATENG-EVANS: Yeah. I mean, many of us will leave the day with something that has left, like, our soul or our spirit or our mind unsettled. Like, there's something that we just don't have full peace with.

ZOMORODI: This is Adjoa Boateng-Evans. She's an anesthesiologist at Stanford, and she's pregnant.

BOATENG-EVANS: Yeah, it's been an interesting year.

ZOMORODI: Adjoa started going to these writing workshops back in May.

BOATENG-EVANS: I felt like, here I am, this, like, Ivy League-trained physician. I'm seven, eight months pregnant. I'm working in the ICU. I'm trying to fight COVID for these patients, trying to prevent myself from getting COVID - so in some regard, putting my life and my baby's life at risk. And then, you know, we were then all awakened. And it wasn't necessarily new news, I would say, to the Black American community, but I would say some novel news to the community at large in the United States.

On white paper, my brown hands write, brown man killed by bare white hands tonight. Yesterday, last week, last month, the one before that, last year...

So basically seeing the same people who look like me be persecuted over and over and over again while bystanders watch - and so it created this confusion about, like, how do I really fit into this country, into medicine?

We avoid the videos, the poetic waxing, the political pundits as our spirits come to our hearts. My own room whirls with the wonder of burgeoning Black boy brilliance. Shielded, safe and sound, he sits in a sanctuary of warm love encapsulated by Mommy's adoration, endearment and affection. But today I pondered fleeing. They've robbed. They've pillaged. They've slashed. They've burned. How else do we ensure his childhood innocence is upheld, whether I am not for her or she not for me like two war-torn lovers separated by gunpowder and the sound of exploding chemicals? My son, maybe Mommy and America just aren't meant to be together. On white paper, my brown hands write, brown man killed by bare white hands tonight.


TURNER: In medicine, we spend so much time creating a language to describe pain. You know, if someone tells me they're short of breath, I can ask them 15 different follow-up questions to characterize what that shortness of breath feels like. But we don't have quite as rich a vocabulary for describing the type of racial pain that our patients and our providers are experiencing. And I think some of that can be clarified through writing.

ZOMORODI: Since the pandemic, these workshops are virtual, with over a thousand health care workers joining from around the world.

BRENDA KUBHEKA: My name is Brenda Kubheka. I am a physician, bioethicist based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

PABLO ROMANO: My name is Pablo Romano. I'm a third-year medical student at Stanford University School of Medicine. Mental health comes from taking time to reflect and process everything that's happening. And for me, that often takes the shape of writing, you know, talking about grief and talking about these really big losses and how it relates to me as an aspiring physician, as a child of immigrants, as somebody who is trying to navigate this often complicated and cruel world.

KUBHEKA: It's overwhelming at work. It's overwhelming emotionally. Like, you find your emotions being thrown between, you know, your heart and your mind. So now and again, it's finding a space to actually just talk about those things and write about them.

TURNER: And sometimes I think what's most important is finding the right language to describe what's happening. It helps you feel like you understand. And I think that understanding produces comfort on its own as well and probably a path forward. That hope has been powerful, and that hope allows me to take some of these moments that feel traumatic and turn them into something that begins to resemble healing.

KUBHEKA: You know, if we're vulnerable and we are open and we accept that we're human beings and we tell our stories - their stories - they heal us. But these stories can teach others, and they can also heal other people.

LAUREL BRAITMAN: These stories are gutting and brutal and heartbreaking and gorgeous and full of resilience and hope. And they're really hard to read and hard to listen to a lot of the time, but that's precisely why they're the stories that need to be told.

ZOMORODI: This is senior TED fellow Laurel Braitman.

BRAITMAN: And I have a PhD in history and anthropology of science, but I really consider myself a writer. I write nonfiction about science, medicine, us, grief, nature, loss, all kinds of things.

ZOMORODI: Laurel's been leading these writing sessions for the last five years.

BRAITMAN: You know, if you give people who are at the forefront of multiple crises an opportunity to reflect and you don't put fences around what you're encouraging them to reflect upon, you get a lifetime of stories because every time something hard happens to us, it's like all the hard things happening to us. You know, I think that's particularly true with loss. When you feel one loss, you're feeling all your losses. When you are a victim of one instance of racism, it calls up every time you have been treated unfairly. And so this moment is bringing up every moment for so many people.

ZOMORODI: And so today on the show, Laurel is our guide through a series of TED talks about how health care workers and the rest of us can process everything we're feeling right now. Whether it's anxiety or anger, lack of control, we're all dealing with something. How can we make sure we're processing all this change and stress? Well, one way is to write about it, like the health care workers in Laurel's workshop.

BRAITMAN: You know, I never question the humanity of health care providers. I was raised by a cardiac surgeon. My dad, you know - he was my hero. He was also a person. And, you know, he was ill himself for a really long time. He lived with bone cancer, and I saw him, you know, trying to deal with his extreme pain while also showing none of it to his patients. You know, he had his leg amputated because he had a tumor in one of his knees, and he was back doing surgery in the OR within six weeks, you know, standing on a bleeding stump for eight hours or more. And he felt like he couldn't show that weakness to his patients, and I think he felt a lot of shame about that weakness. And I think that's a broken, broken system.


BRAITMAN: Physicians' own humanity and emotional well-being are almost never made a core part of their training or even acknowledged. And real vulnerability, like sharing certain mental health diagnoses, for example, can be absolutely career-ending. But nearly 30% of American medical students are depressed, and 1 in 10 have thought about suicide. And it's actually even worse for practicing physicians.

Now, I am absolutely not a mental health professional. I'm a writer, which most days is absolutely the complete and total opposite. But I could tell you that the more opportunities that I give health care workers to share their daily frustrations, their fears, their joys, what surprises them, what they resent, the better they seem to feel.


BRAITMAN: I would say 99% of my job is making people feel comfortable and rewarded, frankly, for communicating vulnerably, authentically, for telling true stories, for admitting mistakes, for showing their humanity. You know, physicians, for a very long time, have been seen to be bionic humans. They're supposed to subvert their humanity in service of others. But I think that's to great detriment.

ZOMORODI: We'll keep talking with Laurel Braitman about her work with health care professionals in just a minute. On the show today, Processing The Pandemic. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, processing the pandemic. We were just talking to writer Laurel Braitman, who's guiding us through a selection of talks about mental health, including her own talk, which is about her work leading those writing workshops for health care workers to help them cope with stress, anxiety and everything that is happening around them.

BRAITMAN: You know, my hope is that people come to be able to have protected time to think about what they might not let themselves think for the rest of the week because the demands on them are so incredibly intense. You know, I just want to give people a kind of room that they can walk into and put a pause on the many demands that come through, you know, at all hours of the day and instead think about the things and work through some of their experiences that they're having now but also things that they've had - experiences that they've had 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 10 years ago, six months ago.

You know, in many ways, I think writing about this moment is giving people an opportunity to write about lots of difficult moments that they've experienced over the course of their lives, and we really see that in the writing. You know, over the course of an hour, someone will write about something that happened to them as a child. They will write about their experience of first love as a young adult. They'll write about a difficult thing that happened at work that sent them scrambling to find an isolated stairway at the hospital to cry in where no one could see them.

And all of that will happen over the course of an hour. Plus, they'll be able to hear all of these other really vulnerable experiences shared by other people that they wouldn't normally have access to. So I think really, all the - all these writing workshops are is a kind of permission slip to reflect on things that people don't have time to reflect on in the normal course of their workdays.


BRAITMAN: Life is so short. For me, the only thing, really, that matters with my time here is feeling like I can connect with other people and maybe make them feel slightly less alone. And in my experience, that's what stories do absolutely the best. So the most important thing that our work has done is create a culture of vulnerability in a place that there was absolutely none before. I think what this does is that it allows doctors and other folks an opportunity to envision a different kind of future for themselves and their patients.

ZOMORODI: What do you think the rest of us can learn right now from your work with first responders?

BRAITMAN: Yeah. We are all living through unprecedented times where we are dealing with, on a daily basis, so much incredible uncertainty. And I think giving ourselves the space to reflect is really important.


BRAITMAN: Being human is a terminal condition. We all have it, and we are all going to die. Communicating with each other with vulnerability, listening with compassion is, I believe, the absolute best medicine that we have.

So many of us are having negative feelings that we use to self-medicate with distraction. And so on the one hand, many of us are suffering clinically and really need structured intervention. On the other hand, a lot of us who normally didn't feel the negative feelings because we were so busy doing other things also are feeling that for the first time. And for some people, both of those things are true. I'd say when in doubt, get help. We should use this experience as a way to seek help and reach outwards. It's reaching out to friends and family. It's being honest about what's happening to you. I think in general, if there's one thing we should do, it's to claim our own unique experience and to realize that you really are not alone in feeling these things. And feeling bad right now is normal.

ZOMORODI: It does sometimes feel like it's a lot to deal with right now, but we humans are pretty resilient, right? Like, I've read many studies that actually say the majority of people do deal with a traumatic situation. They come out, actually, just fine on the other side.

BRAITMAN: Yeah. I think that we can get through hard things and use them as a kind of crucible in order to understand that this, too, shall pass, that the next thing - time a hard thing happens, we can remember what brought us solace or comfort. You know, if seven minutes of writing helps now, seven minutes of writing is going to help someone 10 years from now when something else really hard happens. So I think what we're doing is a large experiment right now. And what are the tiny things that we can do to make ourselves feel better in the moment when we can't control what's happening around us?

And I think that will never happen quite like it is right now again, but certainly, it will happen again. So, you know, I hope that we remember what brings us solace. I hope we remember what feels like grace right now so that we can call upon it later when we need it because we surely will.

ZOMORODI: You have been writing about mental health and helping other people write about their mental health for a long time. You know, I think a lot of people have been thinking about all of this for the first time. With so many people at home, they're around their family. They're dealing with the stress of the pandemic, financial issues and, as you said, on top of that, all the pain and emotion that's boiling over right now with systemic racism. So what would you tell people who might be experiencing this level of stress, anxiety and even depression for the very first time?

BRAITMAN: I'd say welcome...


BRAITMAN: ...You know? Welcome. It sucks here, but - you know?


ZOMORODI: Is this what normalizing talking about mental health care sounds like, do you think?

BRAITMAN: I think so. You know, I think it's a - you know, we can't - we must acknowledge the reality of people's experience. And I think the first step in making it better is realizing where we're at. And where we're at is really, really uncomfortable, sad, full of loss and grief. You know, we are processing the deaths of people that we know and the people that we don't know right now. And I - and that's always true. Some of us have been doing it longer than others.

So for those of you that are new, I say, welcome. There is pain here, but also there is joy here. There is humor here. There is celebration of life. There is the acknowledgment of what life really is, which is a long experience of, like, loss, disorientation and, in my experience, hopefulness and joy. And to realize, you know, that we share the worst of the human experiences is something that also gives us access to celebrate the good stuff, too. So I think this is the best table that you could possibly sit at. So welcome. I'm sorry you're having really uncomfortable feelings right now because it feels terrible. But also, now you know what it's like, and you're not alone.

ZOMORODI: OK, Laurel. I think this is the perfect moment to turn to the first speaker that you suggested we talk about, social worker and researcher Brene Brown.


BRENE BROWN: Connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it's all about. It doesn't matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice and mental health and abuse and neglect. What we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is - neurobiologically, that's how we're wired. It's why we're here.

ZOMORODI: Brene spent years and years studying connection, vulnerability and, of course, shame.


BROWN: I ran into this unnamed thing that absolutely unraveled connection in a way that I didn't understand or had never seen. And so I pulled back out of the research and thought, I need to figure out what this is. And it turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won't be worthy of connection?

The things I can tell you about it - it's universal. We all have it. The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this I'm not good enough - which we all know that feeling. I'm not blank enough. I'm not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough. The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability, this idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.

ZOMORODI: So Laurel, Brene Brown is talking about a few different things here - belonging, vulnerability, shame. What does that add to the conversation around mental health, do you think? Like, why did you want to bring up her talk?

BRAITMAN: Yeah. I think her work is profound in that way where she opened a kind of Pandora's box around shame and vulnerability that we really weren't talking about on an international stage. And I think that she gave us some language that's now part of our lexicon, at least in the United States - you know, terms like, say, vulnerability hangover, you know, where - like, that bad feeling after you share something personal when it's, like, hanging in the air, you know? And you wonder if you've done wrong to yourself and others by sharing it. It's kind of like you jump off the cliff of vulnerability, and it's that feeling of falling through air until you're either caught by the people around you or you hit the rocks at the bottom.

And I really love that phrase. And I talk about that a lot because, certainly, the first time you practice sharing something vulnerable, true and authentic, it does feel that way. You know, it's hard to be vulnerable and say true things about ourselves that we may be ashamed of. But I think - I love this talk of Brene's because I think it gets at the very heart of healing, you know, which is that connection is the very ability to be heard, to understand what the person is telling you, to understand why it matters. And the outcome of that is to feel less alone. And so, you know, connection in that context is everything.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. And you know, I think Brene said more recently that the coronavirus is perhaps a lesson in collective vulnerability. You know, you wear a mask when you go outside not just for your own health, but to protect the people around you. And people of all races are protesting as a way to stand up for the most vulnerable. But you know, not everyone feels that way. Even within the same family, there is real tension, like, I think even an aching fear. A lot of people don't know how to deal with that fear.

BRAITMAN: I totally agree with you. I think we are vulnerable to the decisions of our loved ones immediately around us, as well as our neighbors. It's led to so many conflicts that we're seeing - right? - like, play out in the culture both nationally and internationally...


BRAITMAN: ...Where we are trying to corral our family members and our partners into what we think is right and what will keep us safe.


BRAITMAN: But I do think you're right. We're also in a time of incredible conflict, sometimes even within ourselves. You know, I know that I've been on lockdown. My mom is getting chemotherapy right now for metastatic pancreatic cancer.

ZOMORODI: I'm so sorry.

BRAITMAN: You know, she's in one of the most immunocompromised populations. I haven't gone into a grocery store I think since mid-February. You know, we started, in my family, locking down long before everyone else had, and I'm going crazy - you know, going crazy. I actually, like, broke down a few weeks ago and hugged my best friend...


BRAITMAN: ...Because I needed it so badly. And then I felt such shame and guilt afterwards. Her husband is a emergency room doctor.


BRAITMAN: You know, and I know he's been exposed, and then she has been exposed by proxy. But I needed a hug so badly that I had to do it.


BRAITMAN: You know, and I think - but I - my mom saw it. You know, she actually is the one who encouraged me to hug her. And she hugged her, too. So I think - you know, how do we know what we're supposed to do right now? And at some point, you know, I needed it for my mental health. I needed the hug more than I needed the social distance. And I think that's a decision that we all have to make individually, knowing the risk. And then I - you know, I honestly didn't know what to do with my shame around it afterwards. I felt bad, and I was kind of worried for two weeks, you know, policing myself for fever. And my mom - if something happened to her and it was my fault, I don't know how I would live with that.

ZOMORODI: You know, it's funny to me, like, also that, on a daily basis - that whether someone wears a mask or not is a public signal to those around you about your vulnerability or what you perceive to be your vulnerability.

BRAITMAN: It's true. I think now we're kind of wearing our comfort or discomfort with risk on the outside, whereas, you know, it probably hasn't changed. You know, I've always been, like, an anxious germaphobe. I've been wiping down my airline seat, you know, for years.

ZOMORODI: You and I are fully formed adults. Like, our Purell habits are probably pretty well-ingrained. But I keep thinking about children and young people, who - this pandemic will be very formative for them as to how they develop coping mechanisms about what kind of - what they think of as safe or not safe. Let's talk about Hailey Hardcastle's talk. And she's a teenager who has really taken on this idea of normalizing mental health, right?

BRAITMAN: Absolutely. I love this young woman. And she helped pass a law in Oregon that offers mental health days in schools for kids and teens. And I just think that we need more structural solutions to support people, and I think mental health days that are normalized is a great way to do that.


HAILEY HARDCASTLE: Let's say a student is having a really hard month. They're overwhelmed, overworked. They're falling behind in school, and they know they need help. Maybe they've never talked about mental health with their parents before, but now they have a law on their side to help initiate that conversation. The parent still needs to be the one to call the school and excuse the absence, so it's not like it's a free pass for the kids. But most importantly, now the school has the absence recorded as a mental health day, so they can keep track of just how many students take how many mental health days. If a student takes too many, they'll be referred to the school counselor for a check-in. This is important because we can catch students who are struggling before it's too late. Oftentimes, stepping forward and getting help is the hardest step.

BRAITMAN: I love that she is making, you know, this a normal conversation in her school. And I think besides, you know, say, like, surgeons, teenagers, you know, might be the people who are most punishing of themselves for feeling...

ZOMORODI: Right, right.

BRAITMAN: ...Badly or feeling human. You know, my experience, at least, of, like, high school and junior high were, like - that's the period in my life where I wanted to be normal more than any other period. And before I realized that - like, normal is something that doesn't exist, first of all. And second of all, you know, it is not what it's cracked up to be if it does exist. The pressure to be OK is so overwhelming, you know, and to be like everybody else even though everybody else feels the way you do. But no one's admitting it. That, to me, like, really sums up a kind of teenager - an aspect of being a teenager. And I love that she has changed that conversation for her peers. I think it's really powerful, and I think that's something adults can learn from teenagers.

I think in general, teenagers have a lot of wisdom, and they get a bad rap, you know, for being all over the map emotionally. And sure, that's true. But that's also a superpower because they haven't learned to hide those emotions necessarily. And maybe you don't have the skills to talk yourself through the really powerful feelings that you're having, but there's also a kind of honesty and raw vulnerability in that that I think - once we learn to hide some of our negative feelings as adults, it really doesn't serve us. You know, I think if we behaved more like teenagers in some ways as adults, we would get the help we need because people would see how we're feeling in a much more straightforward way.


HARDCASTLE: You need to understand that while not everyone has a diagnosed mental illness like I do, absolutely everyone - all of you - have mental health. All of us have a brain that needs to be cared for in similar ways that we care for our physical well-being. Our head and our body are connected by much more than just our neck, after all. Mental illness even manifests itself in some physical ways such as nausea, headaches, fatigue and shortness of breath. So since mental health affects all of us, shouldn't we be coming up with solutions that are accessible to all of us?


ZOMORODI: We'll keep talking with Laurel Braitman about mental health and teens in just a minute. On the show today, processing the pandemic. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Stay with us.

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, why we need to process what's happening all around us. Writer Laurel Braitman is guiding us through a selection of talks, including the one we just heard from Hailey Hardcastle.


HARDCASTLE: You need to understand that while not everyone has a diagnosed mental illness like I do, absolutely everyone - all of you have mental health. All of us have a brain that needs to be cared for in similar ways that we care for our physical well-being.

ZOMORODI: Just listening to Hailey, Laurel, it makes me wonder. You know, young people must be going through a kind of collective trauma right now. They're missing out on some pretty big moments in their lives, right?

BRAITMAN: Yeah. You know, people are talking a lot now about all of these missed milestones - you know, birthday celebrations, graduations, postponed weddings. And I - these are legit losses in people's lives. But also, the pandemic itself is a rite of passage. You know, we - just us living through this right now, all of these high school seniors, all of, you know - I've been talking to a few incoming medical students. You know, a lot of medical schools are now, like, closed for next fall. People who have spent years, you know, of their teen years and so many - and all of college, you know, single-mindedly focused on the goal of becoming physicians have been told that they're going to be doing medical school via Zoom in their childhood bedroom while their parents are in the next room, you know? It's sort of anticlimactic, you know? And I think so many of us are dealing with that.

At the same time, you know, we are living through a collective, painful experience. And I think that is going to affect us, and that's a graduation ceremony like no other. You know, certainly the loss and the deaths and the uncertainty is exhausting and hard. But how we come through this rite of passage will tell us everything about how connected we are as human beings, what we need to do going forward to support one another, what really matters. You know, I think a lot of the distractions have fallen away. You know, there's nothing like one's mortality to make you focus on what's meaningful in this life. And everyone graduating right now is right in the middle of that.


HARDCASTLE: It is always OK to not be OK, and it is always OK to take a break. It doesn't have to be a whole day. Sometimes that's not realistic. But it can be a few moments here and there to check in with yourself. Think of life like a race, like a long-distance race. If you sprint in the very beginning, you're going to get burnt out. You may even hurt yourself from pushing too hard. But if you pace yourself, if you take it slow sometimes intentionally and you push yourself other times, you are sure to be way more successful. So please look after each other, and look after yourself, too. As my mom would say, once in a while, take a break.

BRAITMAN: You know, I wish on the other side of this, you know, what we might see would be required mental health days that you could use as you wish, but they weren't optional. If we have built into, you know, our work lives the kind of thing that allow us time and space to process what we're going through, to rest, you know, just to watch Netflix if that's what you need to just calm your nervous system for a little while. If you need to cook for a day, if you need to just sit for five hours and look at the wall, you know, we should be giving ourselves that. But it should not be optional, I think.


HARDCASTLE: Physical and mental health are equal and should be treated as such. In fact, they're connected. Take health care, for example. Think about CPR. If you were put in a situation where you had to administer CPR, would you know at least a little bit of what to do? Think to yourself. Most likely yes because CPR trainings are offered in most schools, workplaces and even online. We even have songs that go with it. But how about mental health care? I know I was trained in CPR in my seventh grade health class. What if I was trained in seventh grade how to manage my mental health or how to respond to a mental health crisis? I'd love to see a world where each of us has a toolkit of skills to help a friend, co-worker, family member or even a stranger going through a mental health crisis.

ZOMORODI: Hailey, she started her talk explaining how over the years she has figured out how to manage her own mental health. And you and I have been talking about, Laurel, how people who might be feeling anxiety or depression for the first time, they might not know. Is this normal emotions, or is this something perhaps more serious? And I think it helps to hear about what to look for.


ANDREW SOLOMON: There are three things people tend to confuse - depression, grief and sadness. Grief is explicitly reactive. If you have a loss and you feel incredibly unhappy, and then six months later you are still deeply sad but you're functioning a little better, it's probably grief, and it will probably ultimately resolve itself in some measure. If you experience a catastrophic loss and you feel terrible and six months later you can barely function at all, then it's probably a depression that was triggered by the catastrophic circumstances. The trajectory tells us a great deal. People think of depression as being just sadness. It's much, much too much sadness, much too much grief at far too slight a cause.

ZOMORODI: So that was a clip from the next speaker that you chose to share with us, who is actually one of my favorite writers, Andrew Solomon. He's a clinical psychology professor at Columbia University. He's written a ton of books, most famously maybe "The Noonday Demon," which was about his own experience with depression.

BRAITMAN: Yeah, absolutely. I think Andrew Solomon is a warrior genius, personally. In particular, you know, he says that the opposite of crippling sadness and depression isn't happiness; it's vitality. And that's something I think about all the time. And I think that when we feel less alone, when we are raising our flag about our own personal experiences and other people see it and then come stand under it with us, you know, to me that's where vitality lives. And that, to me, is something that he just talks about so beautifully.

He speaks and writes in such a way where he is an educator in how to speak empathetically and beautifully from the heart and to talk about hard things that inspire others. You know, I think his superpower is really in talking about his own internal demons in a way that, you know, really turns them into angels for other people.

ZOMORODI: Now, I'm very curious, Laurel, to hear how you respond to that clip because as someone who has just, you know, you're about to have a book about grief published, how do you think of the difference between grief and depression?

BRAITMAN: I love that he breaks his down. You know, I have to say, this is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, but I'd never thought about it that way until hearing his talk. Separating them out as these kind of, like, cousins in the same family but that operate really differently was so helpful to me. It can also be a little bit more complicated than that. I think we're seeing that right now in the pandemic, which is, you know, I'm not someone who in the past has suffered, you know, from depression, or at least a clinical depression. But as these months go on, my grief and my sadness also, you know, dealing with anticipatory grief of the loss of my mom, you know, all of these things are compounding. And it's sometimes confusing because it's going on a long time, you know? And part of that is situational and contextual, but still.

So to me, you know, I guess I keep Andrew Solomon with me. He's kind of constantly on my shoulder checking in with me in an imaginary way, wondering what it is that I'm experiencing at any given moment. On the other hand, labels are helpful, and they're not helpful, you know? They're helpful in that they give you something to Google, and they can make you feel like you're not broken, that this is something larger that you.

ZOMORODI: You can get a diagnostic code.

BRAITMAN: Exactly. Well, you know, if you qualify for pharmaceutical intervention, you know, and that's helpful, that is - that helps your insurance pay for it. There's great reasons to name these things. On the other hand, I think what we are experiencing right now is such a soupy mixture that just knowing that all of these things exist, that they come and go, that we can overcome them, that they interact with each other, that they're all related, is also really helpful, too. You know, I think I'm sitting right now in, like, depression-grief-sadness, you know? It's, like, it's just one thing (laughter).

ZOMORODI: And I think that to me, that is really the magic of Andrew Solomon, right? Like, he is a clinician, but he is also such a wordsmith.


SOLOMON: It's a strange poverty of the English language and indeed of many other languages that we use the same word - depression - to describe how a kid feels when it rains on his birthday and to describe how somebody feels the minute before they commit suicide. People say to me, well, is it continuous with normal sadness? And I think in a way it's continuous with normal sadness. There is a certain amount of continuity, but it's the same way there's continuity between having an iron fence outside your house that gets a little rust spot that you have to sort of sand off and maybe do a little repainting and what happens if you leave the house for 100 years and it rusts through until it's only a pile of orange dust. And it's that orange dust spot, that orange dust problem, that's the one we're setting out to address.

BRAITMAN: You know, I think that, certainly in English, we don't have enough words to talk about the vast continuum of emotional experiences that we all have and that can hurt us. You know, when you think about the word, like, depression or sad - or how about the word fine, or even love? You know, these aren't big enough words to talk about the human experience. And so that's where stories come in. That's where sharing our individual experiences come in.

And I'm so grateful to Andrew Solomon for that. And, you know, when I share this talk with people, that's what I hope it does. My biggest hope is that if, yes, if you are feeling depressed, if you're in bed and you're waiting for that phone to ring and it doesn't, that you can pick it up and that you can reach out and call for help. I think that's the most vital message of his talk. But underlying that is also this idea that, you know, we need to share our personal experiences in order to know that there's something on the other side of our suffering. And yeah, that's why I write, you know? It's my own call, I guess. You know, when I open up a Word document and I, you know, I work on a book or, frankly, talking to you right now, you know, my hope is that somewhere out there there's someone who hears my voice and says, Oh, my God. Me, too.

ZOMORODI: You know, we were talking earlier in the episode about the workshops you do with health care workers. And actually, Andrew's talk about depression is one that you share a lot with your writing workshop participants, right?

BRAITMAN: Yeah. You know, it's a little bit like the workshops themselves are Trojan horses that are actual wellness interventions, you know? And his talk is the same. And so I share his work as an example of, look what beauty can happen when you are honest about what's happening with you. Like, look at how other people will respond. Look at how you can set yourself and others free when you tell a good, meaningful story. And so that's the context that I share his work in. But I also - I think he shares so many nuggets in all of his talks, but especially his talk about depression, that help all of us, even if you don't suffer from clinical depression.

ZOMORODI: You know, it's funny. I'm thinking as a parent, I have been trying to model being calm and feeling powerless. Do you know what I mean? Like, I've tried to show my kids that, like, I can be calm. I can make dinner. I can have joy even though we don't know what's going to happen. And it is weird and scary. You can hold all those emotions at the same time simultaneously...

BRAITMAN: You're such a good parent.

ZOMORODI: ...Because I...

BRAITMAN: I'm sorry to interrupt you.

ZOMORODI: Oh, I'm trying. Man, I am trying. (Laughter) I am really trying because what I do want to do is go watch movies where people are freaking out and just, like, revel in it. But, like, at the same time, resiliency, right? Like, part of this is - it's the balance - right? - of those moments where you just say, I feel like crap, but I'm going ahead, and other moments where you say, like, I feel like crap; let's explore this - like, very low-brow terminology that I'm using here.


ZOMORODI: Perhaps you can...

BRAITMAN: You're just...

ZOMORODI: ...Put it into a more (laughter)...

BRAITMAN: You're totally right. You know, I think resiliency to me is just us all collectively - well, and individually - saying it's not OK, but that's OK. And, you know, it may not be all OK in the end, and that, too, is OK. You know, it's comfort in uncertainty, even though I wouldn't - well, talk about lack of words. Comfort isn't the right word, you know? But I think you admitting that you don't know what the next thing is is the most profound act of parenting that you can do right now.

And, you know, for young people to see the adults in their lives model not knowing is one of the most profound things that we can do, truly. You know, and I think for her - for your daughter to see you freak out is - and then also be able to cook dinner is the best example. You know, that's adulthood in a nutshell. That's what they need to be prepared for. You know, may they never have to live through an experience like this again, you know, with the pandemic. But being...


BRAITMAN: ...A person in the world is to be constantly disappointed, constantly be jostled into a reality that you didn't want or must adapt to and to figure it out on the other side. And so I think pretending that things are good is never an answer. You know, kids really are good at figuring out that they are being lied to or that they're not being told...


BRAITMAN: ...The whole truth. And so to be honest with the young people around us about the fact that we are suffering and we don't really know what's next is really helpful, actually. You know, I wouldn't give a kid more information than they need. I would answer their questions. But I really do think being honest is the best possible thing that we can do. And that's what I learned, you know, from being a volunteer grief counselor for kids and teens - is that the best answer is always honesty because otherwise, you're teaching them to grow up to not necessarily trust the people around them.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. I think managing expectations is - yeah, I didn't want to be like, oh, yeah, you'll definitely be back at school in time to have cupcakes with your class on your birthday. I really wanted to be like, hopefully you will; you may not - because what I don't want is, you told me that we would be back in class. Expectation-setting seems to be one aspect of mental health that feels very apparent now.

BRAITMAN: Absolutely. You know, this is a large global experiment in uncertainty.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BRAITMAN: I think this experience has shown us, like, what a folly plans really are. And also, you know, it has been an education...

ZOMORODI: Seriously.

BRAITMAN: ...At least for me, about I - you really can't live more than a day at a time, you know? So we're all...


BRAITMAN: ...Being forced to do this. And I hope that it's a kind of practice that we'll take beyond this, a kind of gratitude or appreciation for the present moment.


BRAITMAN: And whenever I start to spin out into a kind of anxiety or fear over the future, I try to return to that.

ZOMORODI: Laurel, thank you so, so much.

BRAITMAN: Thank you so much. I love talking to you guys. I really do.

ZOMORODI: Laurel Braitman is a senior TED fellow and bestselling author. She is also the director of writing and storytelling at the Stanford School of Medicine. A special thanks to Brandon Turner, Adjoa Boateng Evans, Brenda Kubheka and Pablo Romano for sharing their stories with us. And if you or someone you know needs to talk to someone, please reach out to a professional for help. You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services helpline or the National Suicide Prevention hotline. You can find information for both at

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint.

I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.